Virginia Grace Wilson “Gini” Laurie (1913-1989)

Virginia Grace Wilson Laurie, or “Gini,” has been called, along with Mary Switzer, one of the “grandmothers” of the independent living movement. Laurie was the editor and guiding force behind the Rehabilitation Gazette: International Journal of Independent Living by and for Persons with a Disability. Although its circulation has never exceeded 12,000, the Gazette has had a tremendous impact on the disability community in the United States and abroad. By the time of Laurie’s death in 1989, it had readers in 83 countries and was being translated into several foreign languages.

Laurie was born on 10 June 1913 in St. Louis, Missouri. A year before her birth, an epidemic of poliomyelitis caused the deaths of two of her sisters (for whom she was named) and left an older brother severely disabled. Laurie attended Randolph Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, majoring in biology and Latin. Unable to become a physician because of the sexism of the time, she married Joseph Scott Laurie III when she was 25. They moved to Cleveland, where Virginia became a Red Cross volunteer at the Toomey Pavilion rehabilitation center during the 1949 polio epidemic. Laurie visited patients, read to them, provided personal assistance, and was accepted as part of the polio community.

Polio survivors in the 1940s could expect to be hospitalized for two years or more after the onset of their illness. During this time, they formed intense personal bonds. In an effort to keep in touch after leaving the center, staff and residents founded the Toomeyville Gazette, a mimeographed newsletter pulled together by volunteers and mailed out to Toomey alumni. Laurie took the (unpaid) job of editor in 1958. Together with other volunteers, she “gathered news from patients, staff, volunteers and keyholes” and sent the information to everyone listed on the Toomey Christmas card list. The renamed ‘Toomey” Gazette was incorporated in 1959 under the name Iron Lung Polio Assistance, Inc., a nonprofit organization. As a “leisurely quarterly” it offered tips on how best to turn the pages of the Wall Street Journal with a mouthstick and designs for a cheek-operated telephone and an “over-bed type­writer mount.” “Our aim,” wrote Laurie in 1960, is “to reach and advance respiratory polios all over the world and to share the problems, experiences, thoughts and adventures that would be of value.” Among the Gazette‘s readers were future leaders of the disability rights movement such as Ed Roberts and Hugh Gallagher.

Under Laurie’s direction, the Gazette published articles on legislation, activism, and what would come to be called the independent living philosophy. As early as 1963, Laurie wrote how “morally, institutionalizing young people with so many potentialities for service is wrong.” The Gazette protested the ending of attendant funding by the National March of Dimes in 1959, and praised the passage of the Vocational Rehabilitation Amendments of 1965. The Toomey j. Gazette was renamed the Rehabilitation Gazette in 1970. “Of first importance,” Laurie wrote in a 1977 Rehabilitation Gazette editorial, “is the right to freedom of choice to live as normal a life as possible within the community … Segregation is unnormal.”

Laurie was a proponent of cross-disability organizing, and she ran articles on the founding of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, becoming the only nondisabled member of its board of directors. She was a leader in calling for greater research into “post-polio syndrome” – a variety of health problems endemic to polio survivors as they age. Discerning a pattern to the complaints she was hearing from her older readers, Laurie, in 1981, organized the first international conference on post-polio problems. She founded the International Polio Network in 1985, which publishes Post-Polio Health formerly Polio Network News, to disseminate information about post-polio and, in 1987, the International Ventilator Users Network, which publishes Ventilator-Assisted Living (formerly IVUN News). Both publications followed in the tradition of the Gazette, mixing first-person accounts, medical and rehabilitation advice, and news and editorials on political and social issues.

Together with Frederick M. Maynard, D. Armin Fischer, and Judy Raymond, Laurie edited and published the Handbook on the Late Effects of Poliomyelitis for Physicians and Survivors(1984), “the bible on post-polio problems.” She wrote Housing and Home Services for the Disabled: Guidelines and Experiences in Independent Living (1977), a landmark exposition of the independent living philosophy. In it, she reported how “four severely disabled individuals can live at home for the cost of maintaining one in a nursing home. For both economic and humane reasons, the rules of government must be amended to make independent living as feasible as nursing home subsistence.” In 1983, Laurie founded the Gazette International Networking Institute (G.I.N.I.) as an umbrella organization for the variety of networks and publications she had established. Today, both G.I.N.I. and the Rehabilitation Gazette are based in Saint Louis, Missouri. [NOTE FROM PHI: GINI became Post-Polio Health International including International Ventilator Users Network and publishes Post-Polio Health and Ventilator-Assisted Living newsletters. The Rehabilitation Gazette ceased publishing in 1999.]

In her later years, Laurie became what Nora Groce called “an elder statesperson” for the disability rights movement, “staying above the fray and upon occasion quietly mediating disputes.” She also became its de facto archivist, pulling together one of the world’s largest collections of books, articles, letters, and documents on disability, rehabilitation, and independent living. Laurie and her husband, who shared much of her work, were awarded the President’s Distinguished Service Award in 1979.

Joseph Scott Laurie died in 1985. Virginia Grace Laurie died of cancer in her native Saint Louis on 28 June 1989.

Groce, Nora, The U.S. Role in International Disability Activities: A History and a Look towards the Future (1992).
Laurie, Gini, Housing and Home Services for the Disabled: Guidelines and Experiences in Independent Living (1977).
Laurie, Virginia, “Glimpses of Gini and G.I.N.I.,” Rehabilitation Gazette (1990).
SOURCE: Pelka, F. (1997). The ABC-CLIO Companion to The Disability Rights Movement. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.