let me win. but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.

Robert Shriver said of his mother: “My mom never ran for office, and she changed the world. Period. End of story.”

Robert Shriver said of his mother: “My mom never ran for office, and she changed the world. Period. End of story.”

 

Eunice Kennedy Shriver died yesterday at the age of 88. Her legacy is proof that one person can be the change they want to see in the world, and change the lives of millions of people. Her advocacy for the mentally disabled brought a sea change in our society and culture, not just in the United States, but around the world. In 1962, a year after her brother was elected president, she wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post that revealed her sister, Rosemary Kennedy, was developmentally disabled.

“Like diabetes, deafness, polio, or any other misfortune, mental retardation can happen in any family,” she wrote.  Can you imagine a time where the entire world didn’t know what the president ate for dinner six months ago, let alone a world where a sibling in a high-profile political family was kept hidden away? For Ms. Shriver to reveal, without shame, that her sister was developmentally disabled was revolutionary.

“The truth is that 75 to 85 percent of the retarded are capable of becoming useful citizens with the help of special education and rehabilitation,” she wrote in her article. “Another 10 percent can learn to make small contributions, not involving book learning, such as mowing a lawn or washing dishes.”

Her words sound strange now, but at the time she wrote them the majority of mentally disabled people were institutionalized, marginalized, and shunned by society. They were believed to be incapable of feeling or thinking like “normal” humans, and thought to be feral. Eunice Kennedy Shriver knew that was wrong. Unlike most people born with developmental disabilities in the early part of the century, Rosemary Kennedy was raised at home. Of her older sister, Ms. Shriver said, “If I never met Rosemary, never knew anything about handicapped children, how would I have ever found out? Because nobody accepted them anyplace. So where would you find out? Unless you had one in your own family.” In 1941, after experiencing bouts of mood swings Rosemary underwent a prefrontal lobotomy. Instead of helping her,  the operation only made things more difficult for Rosemary and she was sent to an institution in Wisconsin, where she died in 2005.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver saw how the system, the lack of understanding, and society’s views of people with developmental disabilities hurt her sister, and others like her. So she set out to change things.

And she succeeded.

Because of her efforts, President Kennedy established The President’s Committee on Mental Retardation. Her advocacy brought about the creation of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development in 1962, and in 1967 a network of university-affiliated facilities and mental retardation research centers at major medical schools was established across the United States.  Additionally, she fought for the creation of major centers for the study of medical ethics at Harvard and Georgetown. But she is probably best known for founding the Special Olympics in 1968. 

 

 

Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the first Special Olympics in 1968.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the first Special Olympics. Chicago mayor Richard Daley proclaimed, "The world will never be the same after this."

 
The first Special Olympics was held at Chicago’s Soldier Field. It included 1000 athletes from the U.S. and Canada. Today, over 2.5 million athletes from 180 countries compete year round to advance the Special Olympic World Games, held every two years.  By treating people with developmental disabilities as athletes, showing them competing and hoping and fighting and winning (and losing), she showed the world that being different than “normal” isn’t wrong, it’s just different. One of the early criticisms of the program was that developmentally disabled people couldn’t handle the stress of competing, and losing. Ms. Shriver thought that was “a lot of baloney.”

“What proof have they got that as a group of people they can’t take losing?” she said. “Who? Where does it come from, that idea? Somebody cries because they lose? I can tell you 50 people who cry — I go and watch my own kids cry when they lose.”

Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her husband raised five children. She was a feminist and a pro-life Democrat who saw the value and worth in all people. She lived a faith-driven life, determined to give opportunities to people who had been denied hope. In 1984 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1995 she became the only living woman to have her portrait appear on a U.S. coin (the Special Olympic Silver Dollar). This year she also became the first individual who was not a President or First Lady to have her portrait commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian.
 
I wonder if women like Eunice Kennedy Shriver exist anymore. She was born to wealth and privilege, and could have had any life she wanted. She could have quietly raised her family, chosen any career, or been a socialite. She could have been the Paris Hilton of her day. Instead, she chose to fight for something bigger than herself. She knew that people with developmental disabilities deserved better, and that we could do better. And she demanded it.
“The right to play on any playing field?
You have earned it.

The right to study in any school?
You have earned it.

The right to hold a job?
You have earned it.

The right to to be anyone’s neighbor?
You have earned it.
– Eunice Kennedy Shriver, 1987 Special Olympics World Games.

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