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.
“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.”