Thornburgh: 20-Year Advocate For Rights of Handicapped

Virginia Thornburgh, who was appointed coordinator of Harvard's Programs for Persons with Disabilities on February 22 of this year, has been a tireless advocate for the rights of the disabled for more than 20 years.

Thornburgh, known to friends as Ginny, promoted disability issues while her husband, Richard, was governor of Pennsylvania from 1979-87. She served for five years on the Presidential Committee on Mental Retardation.

"It's my whole life's work, and I obviously care very deeply about this issue," she says. She downplays her work, however, saying that it was the "certain emotional attachment that parents have" that caused her to first become involved in disability issues. She adds that witnessing "the unlocking of potential in people" is awe-inspiring.

In 1960, Gov. Thornburgh's first wife was killed and his son Peter was left mentally handicapped in an automobile accident. She married Richard in 1963 and has been involved in issues affecting people with disabilities.

This past fall, before she was appointed to her current post, Thornburgh and Kennedy School student Mark Sakaley '88, who uses a wheelchair, created "Project Inclusion," an advocacy group which Dean Graham T. Allison '62 has officially included it as one of the School's Public Service Initiatives.


As is evident by its name, Project Inclusion seeks to improve the K-school's recruitment of students, staff and faculty with disabilities and make these individuals feel that they are a part of the school. The project also aims to ensure that the school's new buildings provide greater physical accessibility for people with disabilities than current buildings do.

Describing herself as a "conduit" in her current job, Thornburgh is the person to whom the faculty coordinators in each of the University's schools turn to for help in making arrangements for students with special needs. "I'm a resource person," she says. "Schools vary in their use of me."

"My basic responsibility is to make sure that the University complies with the law [Section 504 of the 1974 Rehabilitation Act]," Thornburgh says. She says that her task is to encourage people with disabilities to apply for work at Harvard and to make sure that the proper accommodations are made for them.

Thornburgh says she is excited by the ongoing NSEA/ CAST conference, which she labels "the cutting-edge movement within disability concerns."