Shriver was champion of intellectually disabled

August 15, 2009 05:00 am

Seldom does a single individual have such an impact on a situation that her influence can be felt all over the world. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died earlier this week in Massachusetts, was a woman who had that kind of impact. Thanks to her, those with intellectual disabilities have a place in society that they might not otherwise have had.

Shriver’s big sister, Rosemary Kennedy, was born with an intellectual disability, and it was that relationship that led her to found the Special Olympics. She did so at a time – 1968 – when adults and children with intellectual disabilities were largely kept out of sight, relegated to special isolated classrooms in school and sent to work in sheltered workshops as adults, if they worked at all.

From the first International Summer Games in Chicago in 1968 with its 1,000 athletes from the U.S. and Canada, Special Olympics has grown to an international organization with programs in more than 180 countries serving more than 2.5 million athletes.

Her work on behalf of the intellectually disabled neither began with nor ended at Special Olympics. Before 1968, she ran a free summer camp for kids with intellectual disabilities. In 1961, she served on The President’s Committee on Mental Retardation, formed by her brother, John F. Kennedy, and she worked through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation to form a network of mental retardation research centers at medical schools across the country. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country’s highest civilian honor, for her efforts.

Surely Special Olympics was her highest achievement. It continues today to champion the rights of the intellectually disabled – its Spread the Word to End the Word against the epithet “retard” is among its latest efforts – even as it provides its members with companionship, exercise and success that they might not achieve elsewhere.

As one of her sons noted in 2004, Eunice Kennedy Shriver never ran for office, but she changed the world forever. Those with intellectual disabilities live in a far more inclusive, and as a result far better, world today than they did before she took up their cause.

– Wescom News Service