Eunice Shriver changed views on intellectual disability

The accomplishments of John F. Kennedy's sister range from founding the Special Olympics to establishing major centers to study medical ethics.

Marty Lederhandler/ AP/ File
In this 1975 file photo, Eunice Kennedy Shriver (l.) plays basketball with developmentally disabled children from the Margaret Chapman School in Hawthorne, N.Y.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver changed the way the world views people with intellectual disabilities, and she did it with a characteristic determination and humanity.

Today, people who work in the field, which exists in part because of the work of Ms. Shriver, who died Tuesday, are pausing to recognize her.

"There's no doubt that Mrs. Shriver, her husband, and the entire Shriver and Kennedy families have played instrumental roles over the last 50-plus years of advancing society's views of people with intellectual disabilities," says Paul Marchand, a staff director at The Arc, America's largest parent-controlled organization working on behalf of children and adults with intellectual disabilities and their families.

Shriver's accomplishments range from helping to establish the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to founding the Special Olympics to establishing major centers to study medical ethics.

"While clearly associated with the Special Olympics, Mrs. Shriver also played a significant role in helping to create opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to live and thrive in their home communities through advances like making [federal] funding available to finance housing opportunities," Mr. Marchand says.

A middle child of nine in the Kennedy family – which included a president (John F. Kennedy) and two senators – Shriver said of her upbringing in a 1975 Christian Science Monitor profile, "When you're in a big family, you have to hustle all the time."

And she believed in hustling, calling it a "good quality to instill in your children."

Her mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, wrote of Shriver's "energy, initiative and drive," according to the Monitor profile.

Shriver dedicated her drive to helping Americans, and the world, understand that people who for generations had been institutionalized and regarded as "mentally retarded," "slow," and even "unmanageable" were human beings "who could be valued, loved, and respected by their communities." She told the Monitor that in 1979.

She was motivated, in part, by her sister Rosemary who was mentally disabled.

For many parents of those with disabilities, her work has had a profound impact on the entire family.

"I absolutely don't think we'd be as far as we are today without the Shrivers: They were really trailblazers in making the path for us," says JoAnn Collins of Bradley, Ill., whose twenty-something daughter Angelina has intellectual disabilities. "The Special Olympics is the best organization I've ever been involved with."

Angelina competed in basketball and swimming as a teen. She still competes as a swimmer.

"She recently won a bronze medal in swimming. I always tell her, 'You could save me if I fall in. You could save your mother!' " says Ms. Collins, who is the author of "Disability Deception: Lies Disability Educators Tell and How Parents Can Beat Them at Their Own Game."

Collins believes that everyone, not just those with intellectual disabilities, could be served well by taking to heart the Special Olympics oath, which says: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt."

"It really is just 'do your best,' " says Collins.

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