One of my heroes died this week. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the 88-year-old sister of President John F. Kennedy, passed away on Tuesday, but in her long life she proved that you can bring about big changes without having to create a large government bureaucracy or by enlisting the rich and powerful.
In fact, Shriver went the opposite direction, aiming her social revolution at those who at the time were whispered about, hidden away or shunned, often the object of the cruel jokes of schoolchildren.
In 1962, Shriver started the Special Olympics in the backyard of her Maryland home, a move prompted by her love for her developmentally disabled sister, Rosemary. The beginning was small, just some backyard games. Through Shriver’s dedication, the Special Olympics soon turned into a worldwide phenomenon giving tens of thousands of children the chance to learn that they had something to contribute, that they were good at something.
More important, she taught the world that children with Down Syndrome or other developmental disabilities were not to be scorned, pitied or condescended to. Winners got trophies; losers did not. They seemed fine with that. It pushed them to try harder. Compare this to so many coddled children today who play games of soccer where no score is kept and everyone gets a prize, where their school papers are graded with a purple pencil lest a red mark traumatize their tender psyches. There are types of disabilities other than physical or mental, some inflicted by misguided adults.
I have a special love for the Special Olympics. You see, my son, Joshua, is a former Special Olympian with a mean 3-point shot in basketball. (That’s his team in the above photo. He’s the tall guy, No. 20, in the center.) He was born with global developmental disabilities that include mental deficits as well as some physical problems. (That’s why the term mentally retarded is often incomplete.) But, boy, you should have seen him as I whooped it up when one of his shots swooshed through the net. The pride and joy on his face as he ran down the court would melt the hardest heart.
Shriver’s pioneering work also helped bring the developmentally disabled out of the shadows, opening the way for these children to be mainstreamed into school classrooms, where they could make friends and socialize like other school kids. Joshua, now about to turn 22, was one of the most popular kids in his high school. He holds a job at Chick-fil-a, something that would have been unthinkable when I was young.
I have another interest beyond my son. My younger sister, Amy, was born with brain damage. (That’s her with Joshua at left.) She was born the year Shriver started the Special Olympics and by her teens was part of the first experiment in mainstreaming the developmentally disabled into public school classrooms. And then there’s my niece, Rebecca, who has Down Syndrome. She performs in her church’s children’s choir, where her mom (my sister Mary) is the youth music director.
Eunice Shriver came from a well-connected, politically powerful family but never was elected to public office. Yet I believe she did more to better the world than any other Kennedy. We lost a kind, compassionate and tenacious lady this week. (Yes, you can be compassionate and tough at the same time.) We’re all a little poorer for it, but her legacy remains.
Next time you see a Special Olympian, don’t feel pity or condescension. Give him or her a high-five. That’s all they really need.
Copyright 2009 Tom Neven. All rights reserved.