Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921-2009) was the "mother" of the Special Olympics. She founded the organization in 1968 and was its honorary chairperson and chief cheerleader until her death 41 years later. She was a trailblazer in improving the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. She saw opportunity where others saw barriers. She used athletics to change the world for people with intellectual disabilities. She brought mentally disabled children and adults into the sunlight, celebrated their efforts in competitive sports, and helped draw attention to their health needs and their right to be included into the larger community.
She could have simply made a hefty donation to an organization with her name on it, gaining the glory and leaving the less glamorous work to someone else. Instead, Shriver rolled up her sleeves and did the hard work that changed the way society thinks about, and the expectations we have for the mentally disabled.
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, the fifth of nine children of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, Eunice Mary Kennedy received a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Following graduation, she worked for the U.S. State Department in the Special War Problems Division. In 1950, she became a social worker at the Penitentiary for Women in Alderson, West Virginia, and the following year she moved to Chicago to work with the House of the Good Shepherd and the Chicago Juvenile Court. In 1953, she married Sargent Shriver, who became the first director of the Peace Corps and the Democratic Party vice-presidential candidate in 1972. In 1957, Eunice Shriver took over the direction of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation.
The Foundation, established in 1946 as a memorial to Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.—the family's eldest son, who was killed in World War II—has two major objectives: To seek the prevention of intellectual disabilities by identifying their causes, and to improve the means by which society deals with citizens who have intellectual disabilities. In the 1950s, the mentally retarded were among the most scorned, isolated, and neglected groups in American society. Mental retardation was viewed as a hopeless, shameful disease, and those afflicted with it were shunned from sight. Shriver set out to change that. She learned firsthand about these issues through Rosemary Kennedy, her older sister, who was born mentally retarded in 1918. Rosemary spent her childhood in the Kennedy household, rather than in institutions, which was the fate of many other developmentally challenged children at that time. Rosemary and Eunice developed a close bond participating in sports including swimming and sailing and traveling together in Europe. Eunice Shriver later commented:
I had enormous affection for Rosie. 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.
The Foundation launched the Special Olympics in 1968, but under Shriver s leadership, the Foundation helped achieve many other significant advances, including the establishment by President Kennedy of The President's Committee on Mental Retardation in 1961, development of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development in 1962, the establishment of a network of university-affiliated facilities and mental retardation research centers at major medical schools across the United States in 1967, the creation of major centers for the study of medical ethics at Harvard and Georgetown Universities in 1971, the creation of the "Community of Caring" concept for the reduction of intellectual disabilities among babies of teenagers in 1981, the institution of 16 "Community of Caring" Model Centers in 1982, and the establishment of
Community of Caring" programs in 1200 public and private schools from 1990-2006.
her formative years. She recalled: "I was always trying to find my brothers, not my sisters. I wanted to play football, and I was very good. I was always the quarterback." Her love of sports made the Special Olympics a viable vehicle for her efforts to help the mentally retarded. If she had not been a sportswoman, she would not have thought of the Special Olympics as her vehicle. She felt a physical resonance with athletics, with events that challenged the body, an inheritance of decades of swimming and sailing ar the Cape and touch football with her siblings.
In 1962, Shriver began what became the forerunner of the Special Olympics when she opened a summer camp for mentally retarded children at her home in Maryland, called Timberiawn. The idea was born when a mother telephoned her and complained that she could not find a summer camp for her child. Shriver recalled:
I said you don't have to talk about it anymore. You come here a month from today. I'll start my own camp. No charge to go into the camp, but you have to get your kid here, and you have to come and pick your kid up.
For years, Camp Shriver provided physical activity for developmentally challenged children, and Shriver took a hands-on role. Many of the activities at the camp were based on games the family had played with Rosemary.
Using funds from the Kennedy Foundation, she helped finance a dozen or so other such camps around the country. One day in 1967, she listened to a plan from the Chicago Park District to hold a track meet for the city's kids with intellectual disabilities -- Anne Burke, then a teacher in the parks system, now an Illinois Supreme Court judge, was the moving force behind the idea -- and turned on the Kennedy magic, providing $25,000 funding and insisting that children from all over the country be involved.
In July 1968, she convened the first Special Olympic Games at Soldier Field in Chicago. It was only seven weeks after her younger brother, Robert, had been gunned down in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and about five weeks before the Windy City exploded in violent confrontations between police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention.
The assassination and the violence had lasting political effects on the American landscape and, in a much different way, so did the Games at Soldier Field. With a crowd of fewer than 100 people dotting the 85,000-seat stadium, about 1,000 athletes from 23 states and Canada, all of them routinely classified in those days as mentally retarded, marched in the opening ceremonies and followed Shriver as she recited what is still the Special Olympics oath:
Let me win,
but if I cannot win
let me be brave
in the attempt.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who would become a polarizing figure at the convention that August, attended the four-day event and told Shriver, "You know, Eunice, the world will never be the same after this." In her address at the opening ceremony Shriver said, "The Chicago Special Olympics prove a very fundamental fact, the fact that exceptional children—children with mental retardation—can be exceptional athletes, the fact that through sports they can realize their potential for growth." This was an extraordinary idea at the time. While skeptics shook their heads and most of the press ignored the unprecedented competition, Shriver boldly predicted that one million of the world's intellectually challenged would someday compete athletically.
She was wrong! Today, more than three million Special Olympic athletes are training year-round for 30 Olympic-type sports in all 50 states and 181 countries. It is the largest sports organization in the world for people with intellectual disabilities. Athletes and coaches practice daily and compete publicly in nearly 30,000 competitions per year. Over 750,000 volunteers support the sports programs, from the local level to the World Games, making Special Olympics the largest grass-roots movement in the world. At the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, a crowd of 80,000 cheered at the opening ceremony as President Hu Jintao welcomed more than 7,000 athletes to China—a country with a history of severe discrimination against anyone born with disabilities.
Although she never held an elected office, Shriver was extraordinary influential in securing both federal funding and legislation for the mentally retarded. She used her family connections when she had to do so. For example, when Iowa's Tom Harkin was a freshman senator in 1984, he got a political favor from Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy and, sure enough, was visited shortly thereafter by Eunice, who asked for his support for Special Olympics funding. But she never twisted arms or peddled her influence to build her own power base. She used it to help those who were invisible or perceived to be an embarrassment by the population at large.Among the watershed successes with which Shriver was centrally involved was the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 and later the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990—with Harkin as chief sponsor-—which together greatly expanded the rights of the disabled.
After the 1968 Chicago event, Shriver's energy, cajoling, lobbying, wheedling, and quarterbacking created a momentum lor expansion of rhe Special Olympics concept. Subsequent landmarks in the organization's evolution included:
- In 1971, the U.S. Olympic Committee gave Special Olympics official approved as one of only two organizations authorized to use the name "Olympics" in the United States.
- In 1977, it expanded to create the first international Special Olympics Winter Games held in Colorado with 500 athletes participating and CBS, ABC, and NBC television networks covering the Games.
- In 1981, the first Torch Run for Special Olympics was launched to raise funds, and it is now the movement’s largest grass-roots fund raiser, raising $30 million annually.
- In 1988 the International Olympic Committee signed an agreement with Shriver in which the IOC officially endorses and recognizes Special Olympics.
- In 1997 Healthy Athletes became an official Special Olympics initiative, providing healthcare services to Special Olympics athletes worldwide. The program includes free vision, hearing and dental screening, injury prevention clinics and nutrition education.
- In 2004, President George W. Bush signed the Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act, which appropriated $15 million per year over five years to fund the growth of Special Olympics and support initiatives that foster greater respect and understanding for people with intellectual disabilities. The signing marked the first time that Special Olympics secured support through legislation.
Since its Chicago beginnings, the emphasis has changed but always with the goal of improving peoples lives. In the beginning, the Games were based on the model of the modern Olympiad. Any person was allowed to compete regardless of age, who had a below-average intellectual functioning (two years or more behind their peers) and significant limitations in the adaptive skill areas needed to live, work and play in the community.
In recent years, the organization has become far more ambitious, using athletes to bring preventive medicine to the intellectually challenged throughout the world. Up until 40 years ago, most people with intellectual and developmental disabilities didn't live long enough to have adult specialized care, so many of them died young because society did not take care of them. Obesity and periodontal disease, both of which can lead to fatal health problems, are rampant among people with intellectual disabilities, for example. They used to go relatively unchecked for any number of reasons, including indifference, communication barriers, and a lack of training in the medical community.
Shriver's son Tim, who has taken over leadership of the Special Olympics states: "What Special Olympics is about now is using an event to drive the development of sport, fitness, and health programs nationwide. It's a basic change in the movement." Special Olympics is more than a once-a-year sporting event, it is now a place where participants get linked to health care and community programs and start lasting friendships.
To say that the lot of people with intellectual disabilities has improved because of Special Olympics is so grossly understated as to be meaningless. Shriver's movement did nothing less than release an entire population from a prison of ignorance and misunderstanding. It did something else, too; it created a cathartic covenant between competitor and fan that is unlike anything else in sport. You watch, and what you see is nothing less than a transformation, the passage of someone who has been labeled unfortunate, handicapped, disabled or challenged to something else: an athlete.
The maxim of the Kennedy family is "Much is expected from those to whom much has been given." A leadership role for Eunice Shriver in politics was not feasible, because in the 1950s women were not welcomed in that arena. However, she bad the remarkable insight to see that she was capable of leading a movement to help retarded children. In 1993, U.S. News &World Report said in a cover story:
When the full judgment of the Kennedy legacy is made -- including JFK's Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress, Robert Kennedy's passion for civil rights, and Ted Kennedys efforts on health care, workplace reform, and refugees -- the changes wrought by Eunice Shriver may well be seen as the most consequential.
This view was endorsed by Ted Kennedy in 2007 when he stated, "You talk about an agent of change—she is it. If the test is what you're doing that's been helpful for humanity, you'd be hard pressed to find another member of the family who has done more."
Jack McCullum. (2008). Small steps, great strides. Sports Illustrated, December 8.
Carla Baranauckas. (2009). Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Influential founder of Special Olympics, dies at 88. New York Times, August 12. Edward Shorter. (2000).
The Kennedy family and the story of mental retardation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Joseph Shapiro. (2007). Eunice Kennedy Shriver's Olympic Legacy. National Public Radio Archives, April 5.