Chapter 5: Ginny's National Advocacy and Faith Based Work
23:58:51:06 - 00:05:50:22
Lisa: In 1990, the ADA was signed into law, a historic day. Dick was then serving President Bush as the U.S. Attorney General, and in addition to being an advocate for the law, was also responsible for his implementation. You were both, though, active and vocal supporters of the legislation.
I wonder if you could share with us your recollections about that day, the ADA was signed into law.
Ginny: I was then working for the National Organization on Disability, and a similar pan-disability organization to the American Association of People with Disabilities, where I am working now, and what became clear was every state was getting involved in this ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and we were all advocating our congress and our senators and the president that this was going to happen -- it will happen.
Our big hero in that effort, I hold his name in reverence, Justin Dart, visited every state five times, and so we, in the Washington community, were very involved in making sure that this was a priority in the Bush Administration -- that would be President George H.W. Bush, the first Bush.
Dick was Attorney General, as you mentioned at that time, and he -- President Bush asked him to be the point person for the ADA, and that meant a fascinating responsibility from going to meeting with Senator Ted Kennedy, a champion of rights for people with disabilities, then going over to those in the Bush Administration who weren't quite so sure this was a good idea, and talking to them and then going and meeting with advocates, trying to find a common ground, trying to -- he spoke in the house, he spoke with great leaders like Pat Wright, trying to say, you know, the time has come for this. The time has long passed for this law.
So he did a magnificent job for our nation in bringing about this bill, and the date we all have memorized, July 26, 1990, I played a small part, not only cheering Dick on, but I asked Dick, could there be a prayer before the bill signing of the bill, which initially was going to be inside the White House, which meant that just a few people could visit this incredible sight, and we advocates convinced the White House that it needed to be on the White House lawn, when thousands of Americans, many with disabilities, many family members, many advocates came -- 3,000, 4,000 people, I don't have the exact number -- and then the White House people said, well what happens if it's so hot that people start fainting? Because on a July day, it could be 90 degrees, and one of the advocates said, we have as much right to faint as anybody else. So our spirits were high.
My responsibility was this idea of a blessing. Initially I'd asked for a prayer. The word came back, we can't have a prayer but we could have a blessing. And I don't know -- I believe it may be the only time in our American history where we have had a blessing at a bill signing.
I was charged with finding the person, and my mentor, the person who had taught me to do the work that brings the intersection between religion and disability was a wonderful pastor named the Reverend Harold Wilkey, born armless, an incredible theologian, chaplain, teacher, and my friend. And he was the person who said, Ginny, you can do this work, working interfaith, always honoring all faiths that come before you and all disability concerns that come before you.
And so Harold Wilkey was the person selected to do this blessing. Harold, my friend, sent me a five minute blessing.
I mean, he had been doing this work interfaith, although he was a United Church of Christ pastor, he was totally comfortable working interfaith, and he had done this work for years and years and years. So five minute prayer was about right for his heart, and the White House got back to me and said it had to be 58 seconds long, the blessing. So Harold -- that was very hard for him.
He cut it down to 58 seconds, and that will be one of the shining moments of that day, when President Bush signed that bill. For after President Bush signed it, he handed the signing pen to Reverend Wilkey, Harold Wilkey, who accepted the pen in his toes. Harold used his toes for his fingers, did it in the most dignified way, and that way we all remember, and the cheer went up for Harold Wilkey, and for faith. Because our community, the disability community, has not put much muscle behind religious access. The disability community all along has paid attention to education and employment and health care and community living, but not much attention to the right of every citizen to be honored in the house of god of their choice. And I think having Harold Wilkey there made our community realize that this is an important effort also.
President Bush had many great lines in his speech, but my favorite and Dick's favorite is when he referred to the shameful walls of exclusion -- shameful walls of exclusion, may they come tumbling down. Great moment for our nation.
00:05:51:00 - 00:06:39:15
Lisa: Indeed it was, and you described your friend, Reverend Wilkey, accepting the pen from President Bush with such dignity, but he didn't keep it. What did he do with his pen?
Ginny: Well, you're right, Lisa. It was given to me. I have it framed in our living room, yes.
That was a moment where my -- the depth of my feeling about the importance of faith in people's lives, should they choose faith, and the importance -- Dick's responsibility to get those regulations out within a year, we were working for the same benefit for our nation, it was a great day for us.
00:06:50:12 - 00:11:38:16
Lisa: Ginny, since your time as the governor's wife, you've had a distinguished career of your own, including an appointment by President Reagan to serve on the President's Committee for Mental Retardation. You served for, I believe, 19 years as the direction -- sorry, the Director of Religion and Disability Programming for the National Organization on Disability.
And currently you're the Director of the American Association for People with Disabilities Interfaith Initiative.
Ginny: That's right.
Lisa: So, it's interesting, it does seem that all of your work around faith-based issues maybe started, or at least had its inception years ago, when you weren't sure whether Peter would be welcomed in your congregation. I'm wondering if you can tell me a little bit about this work, and whether you find this work is your true passion.
Ginny: Yes, in the religion world, it would be called a call, something that is deeply satisfying, that emanates out of your core person, and I really have found what I hope to do for the rest of my life.
What is involved in the work? It is to help people with disabilities and their families find dignity and respect in the congregation of their choice. That's everything from making sure your wheelchair can enter, that you can park your car, you can enter with your wheelchair, and you can find a comfortable place within the body of the congregation to sit, and that people treat you in genuine friendship when you're there, and there's a restroom that's ADA compliant, and my most favorite goal is that every congregation, every temple, every mosque, every synagogue, every church, every parish, has access to the place of leadership -- that would be the altar, the chancel, the bimah, the place where leaders are. Well, a leader may very well use a walker or a wheelchair or a scooter.
So when we begin to think architecturally about congregations, that's the work I've been about.
Even more important than that is thinking about attitudinal barriers.
Unfortunately, people make assumptions about other people. If somebody has labored speech, makes a decision that they can't in fact learn easily and well. If somebody is a wheelchair user, why can't they chair the finance committee of the synagogue? So helping people think about our community, the disability community, which has folks with physical, sensory, psychiatric, and intellectual disability -- that's who we are -- have regarding this community as able. Enormous talents and abilities that exist in the disability community, with our children and adults, so that if your congregation is not a place of welcome, you're missing out on those gifts. So I am there to offer resources, to encourage if somebody calls and they're Roman Catholic, I would give them the name and web address of the person to call within the Roman Catholic community for advice and resources. So I'm a resource person, I'm a guide, I'm a journey -- I journey with people.
That has been extremely satisfying work, and I think I'll do that until the day I die.
The other part of my work, which I do through the American Association of People with Disabilities, AAPD, is to help organize the religious community around the disability agenda, because now in the year 2011, and in the year 2012, there are certain goals that we have.
For example, preserving Medicaid, and how can I be a force to bring parts of the religious community together, so we meet together, we realize that we share many common goals, although we may be Islamic or we may be Jewish or we may be Christian, but helping us advocate on behalf of the disability agenda. And that has been wonderful work. I've enjoyed that tremendously. So that's a part of my job, too.
00:11:38:20 - 00:12:51:08
Lisa: You talk about that ongoing advocacy work on behalf of people with disabilities.
We're certainly at a very delicate time, with large and looming budget cuts that may affect people with disabilities, and families. Are you ever concerned, Ginny, that we would return to some of the systemic problems that you advocated, to improve?
Ginny: I do all that I can to prevent that. The budget cuts are going to be real, and I think each of us has to play our part. The part I am trying to play is by organizing the religious community across faith lines, so we're speaking with one voice about Medicaid right now, that Medicaid is the critical funding stream for those of us who want to live in our own home, rather than be sent to a nursing home or be sent to an institution. So I think we all have to be not just better advocates -- better informed advocates, focused advocates, during these periods of cuts.
Cuts are going to be real, yes.
About Ginny Thornburgh
Born: 1940, Hastings on Hudson, New York
Director of Interfaith Initiatives, American Association on People with Disabilities
ADA, Arc, Faith, Governor, Parents, Pennhurst, Polk Center