To commemorate the second anniversary of the passing of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, we are posting this story written by Lynda Steele, ED of Abilities United and published in Parenting on the Peninsula, November 2009.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver is, for those of us who work with people with special needs, the ultimate role model. She is an example of what can be accomplished by one person with a passion for a cause. She was a woman, who for decades relentlessly pursued her vision of a just world for people with developmental disabilities. Her tenacity, commitment, and influence to forge a revolution to expand the rights and independence of people with developmental disabilities, inspires all of us to follow in her footsteps in whatever small or grand way we can.
Today, it is impossible to imagine what the lives of people with developmental disabilities would look like without the impact of Eunice. Would most of these individuals still be in institutions, provided inadequate medical care, or worse yet, abused at the hands of their so called caregivers? Granted, these injustices may still exist today but fortunately, only in pockets. The majority of individuals now lead lives that offer stimulation, challenge, education, employment, and independent living. The nationwide network of early intervention, after school and day activity programs, education, employment services, independent living, recreation, respite, and therapeutic services, give each U.S. resident with developmental disabilities or delays new opportunities to live their life as they chose. They are no longer a “victim” of society’s institutions or ignorance. Today, individuals with developmental disabilities are contributors to their community. They work at local companies as tax paying citizens. They “give back” to society as volunteers at local nonprofits. They collaborate with their classmates and teachers. They inspire others through athletics, arts, and leadership. They use their own talents and skills to live independently and make their own impact on the world. We still have progress to make to reach the ultimate goal of equal opportunities for people with disabilities but the drive of people like Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her younger brother, Ted, have gotten us very far along the journey. And though multitudes of dedicated parents, professional, volunteers, donors, caregivers and other community members have made this possible, at the helm was Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
Eunice taught all of us that we couldn’t go it alone, that this revolution, like all revolutions, is a community effort. She recruited many to help her forge her vision, even her own children and family members, as is so evident on the Eunice Kennedy Shriver website, where her son Timothy Shriver wrote: “… To this day, the mission of Special Olympics is rooted in the values of hope, love and opportunity. To create an opportunity for people with intellectual disabilities where they can compete, experience success and showcase their talents to the world. … I challenge each of you to further my mother’s work and vision — reach out to a person with intellectual disabilities who every day is looking for hope, love and opportunity. When we open our eyes to that which is around us it is so simple to do. Smile, reach out and say hello to those with intellectual disabilities in your schools and your communities. Get involved and volunteer with your local Special Olympics. I guarantee your life will be enriched and you will get back more than you give.”
Although Shriver is best known for establishing the Special Olympics in 1968, she spent decades changing the daily lives of people with developmental disabilities in countless important ways. As the executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation in the 1950s, she established two major objectives for the foundation: to prevent intellectual disabilities by identifying its causes, and to improve the means by which society deals with citizens who have intellectual disabilities. Under her leadership, in 1961, the Foundation established The President’s Committee on Mental Retardation. The next year, the Foundation developed the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. In 1967 they created a network of university-affiliated facilities and mental retardation research centers at major U.S. medical schools. Centers for the study of medical ethics at Harvard and Georgetown Universities were created in 1971. The “Community of Caring” concept for the reduction of intellectual disabilities among babies of teenagers was launched in 1981 followed by sixteen “Community of Caring” Model Centers in 1982, and the “Community of Caring” programs in 1200 public and private schools from 1990-2006. Shriver founded the “Community of Caring” to create a school community to teach values across the curriculum in a safe and healthy learning environment in which all children, including students with disabilities, could succeed and prosper academically and ethically.
There is no doubt that Eunice Kennedy Shriver has changed the fabric of life for people with developmental disabilities as well as the lives of their families, friends, neighbors and coworkers. She will be missed but we all vow to carry on her mission and strive to attain her vision. Who could imagine the expanse of the meaning of her words when she convened the first Special Olympics on that sweltering July 20 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, “You are the stars and the world is watching you. By your presence you send a message to every village, every city, every nation. A message of hope. A message of victory.”
On August 25, we lost another great friend to people with special needs. But like his sister Eunice, Ted Kennedy’s spirit and the impact he has had on the lives of people with disabilities will forever be felt in our society. According to Disability Scoop, Kennedy was a chief sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 1990 legislation that ensures people with disabilities equal access to public places and employment. The ADA culminated years of civil rights work to ensure the rights of people with disabilities to employment, appropriate housing and care, voting, air travel and protection from crimes. Kennedy was a co-sponsor of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which later became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). He was also instrumental in establishing government definitions for terms like “developmental disability” and changing the terminology from “handicapped” to “disability.” Andrew Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities spoke for all of us, “His legacy will be felt for generations to come, as millions of Americans with disabilities and our families recommit ourselves to his vision of equality and full citizenship for all people.”
Rest in peace Eunice and Teddy. You will long be remembered and cherished by the millions of individuals from all walks of life you have touched.
Lynda Steele, Executive Director of Abilities United in Palo Alto, has dedicated her 30 year career to improving and changing the lives of people with disabilities by developing and managing high
quality community services as an alternative to institutional care.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Ted Kennedy: Special Friends to those with Special Needs was written by Lynda Steele, Executive Director, Abilities United and published in the November 2009 issue of Parenting on the Peninsula