Virginia McKinney dies at 85; founded L.A. school to teach the deaf to communicate


Virginia McKinney, who lost most of her hearing as an adult and founded a Los Angeles center to teach communication skills to some of the hardest-to-reach deaf students, has died. She was 85.

McKinney died Thursday at Glendale Adventist Medical Center of complications from a lung disease, said her son Walter. She had myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease, and had been confined to a wheelchair for almost 20 years.

“Her story is one of grass-roots beginnings, perseverance and miraculous outcomes for an underserved community,” her son said.


In 1957, McKinney was a Los Angeles County Superior Court reporter when an allergic reaction to a flu vaccine left her profoundly hard of hearing. Unable to work and struggling to lip-read, she made a series of 8-millimeter movies that featured friends and neighbors talking and used them to teach herself to read lips.

Later, she used funds from a drug company settlement to produce more than 20 16-millimeter films aimed at helping others learn to lip-read.

While pursuing degrees in speech therapy and education administration, she founded the nonprofit Center for Communicative Development in her Los Feliz home in 1965 and set out to teach reading, writing, signing and lip-reading to “low-verbal” deaf adults.

Frank Velasco, a California Department of Rehabilitation official, told Los Angeles magazine in 2005 that McKinney succeeded with a population that especially struggled: “The poor, the homeless, immigrants, people who have had no language skills.

“When nobody else will take them because of how hard they are to help, Virginia will.”

For at least 15 years, the center has operated in Koreatown, helping about 50 students at a time, many with multiple disabilities.

One deaf student had been living in a wrecking yard when he showed up at the center with almost no ability to communicate. McKinney learned his first name when he laboriously wrote out “J-o-e.”

As she coached him in basic sign language, she learned that he had spent most of his 18 years as a homeless drifter who had been left to fend for himself at an early age.

He didn’t have a last name, but in 1982, McKinney gave him one when she adopted him. Two decades earlier, the divorced McKinney had adopted her first son, Walter.

Jessica Yu, an independent filmmaker who is making a documentary on McKinney, said she was drawn to the subject partly because McKinney worked with a population that had “pretty much been written off by other areas of the educational and social system.”

“She was just an amazing character,” Yu said. “Idiosyncratic and funny and tough and stubborn, yet incredibly patient with her students. . . . And she was such an innovator.”

In 1997, McKinney wrote an illustrated sign-language guide, “The Picture Plus Dictionary” that is used to teach American Sign Language. As the center’s director, she often developed new teaching materials and, in her 80s, designed computer software.

The center, which usually receives about half its estimated annual $550,000 budget from the state, has struggled recently because of the state’s financial crisis and a downturn in private donations. The school plans to reorganize and continue, said her son, Walter, president of the center’s board.

Born in 1924 in San Francisco, McKinney grew up in foster homes after her mother abandoned the family when she was 6.

At 18, she moved to Hollywood and became a court reporter. Most recently, she lived in Glendale.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in speech therapy at Cal State L.A. in 1968 and a master’s in education administration at Cal State Northridge in 1969.

Throughout the 1970s, McKinney also taught at the Marlton School, a Los Angeles public school for the deaf and hard of hearing.

In 1983, she earned a doctorate in education at Claremont Graduate School.

In trying to explain what drew her to teaching, McKinney told The Times in 1967: “A hard of hearing adult has all the glamour of a housefly.”

In addition to two sons, McKinney is survived by three granddaughters and two great-grandchildren.

Services will be private.