Eunice Kennedy Shriver, 1921-2009

Eunice Kennedy Shriver

After her brother, John Kennedy, was elected President in 1960, Eunice Kennedy Shriver publicly revealed that they had a sister with mental retardation who had been institutionalized. At a time when developmental disability was virtually unmentionable and shrouded in fear, Shriver’s decision to come out was an act of personal bravery that had positive public consequences. The story she told, however, was only part of the family secret.

After Rosemary, the first Kennedy daughter, was born in 1918, her parents rejected advice to send her away. At home with her family during most of her childhood, Rosemary’s behavior became more challenging as an adolescent and young adult. The Kennedys were told by scores of professionals that Rosemary would be much happier in an institution, where she could live without the pressure of the family’s high expectations and busy schedule.

Eunice (left) and Rosemary (right) Kennedy (courtesy of JFK Library Foundation)

Shriver’s story, “Hope for Retarded Children,” was published in the Saturday Evening Post in September 1962. It did not mention that Rosemary had undergone a lobotomy at age 23, in 1941, recommended by doctors to make her more manageable. Something went terribly wrong with the operation. Afterwards, Rosemary became severely disabled. She spent most of the rest of her life in a Catholic institution in Wisconsin.

Shriver’s willingness to share even part of Rosemary’s story was a watershed in making developmental disability more culturally visible, an effort that parent advocates had started years earlier. Shriver made the powerful point that any family and many families included children with mental retardation. That helped turn the tide away from shame and toward openness. Autism did not figure explicitly in Rosemary’s story, but the theory of psychogenesis that blamed parents for their children’s challenges united the families of children with autism, mental retardation, severe learning disabilities, and other developmental disorders. There is no doubt that Shriver’s membership in a very public, powerful family made developmental disability a more politically important issue in the United States.

Eunice was married to Sargent Shriver, a prominent political figure who directed the Peace Corps, led the War on Poverty in the 1960s, and was the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1972. Although she never held elected office herself, Shriver was a dedicated activist on behalf of developmentally disabled Americans from 1957, when she became the Executive Vice-President of the Joseph P. Kennedy Junior Foundation, until her death more than five decades later. Shriver believed that “the mentally retarded must have champions of their cause, the more so because they are unable to provide their own.” She performed that role with great effectiveness.

Thanks to Shriver and her brother, President John Kennedy, developmental disability became a policy priority during the 1960s. The President’s Panel on Mental Retardation was formed in 1962 and the Kennedy administration launched programs designed to promote deinstitutionalization and expand community-based services and research. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which still exists today, was established. President Kennedy addressed Congress on the subject of mental illness and mental retardation in early 1963, the first time an American President had ever done so, and he encouraged policymakers and the public to think of mental illness and retardation as two of the country’s most significant health problems. During the Kennedy administration, federal legislation was passed to build new facilities, fund services, and identify and prevent the causes of developmental disability. Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Kennedy Foundation were closely involved in all of these initiatives, which continued under Lyndon Johnson after John Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver received many awards for her work promoting special education and championing the equality and dignity of people with developmental disabilities. President Reagan, for example, bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver with boy at Camp Shriver, 1962, the origin of the Special Olympics (courtesy of Special Olympics)

Shriver is probably best known for founding the International Special Olympics in 1968, an effort that began during the summer of 1962, when Shriver invited children from Washington DC to the Shriver family farm in Maryland for recreational day camps. As a girl, Rosemary had participated enthusiastically in the family’s boat races and Shriver remembered how much “Rosie” loved winning. The Special Olympics provided recreational opportunities where none had ever existed.

Shriver wanted not only to involve developmentally disabled children in athletic competition but to humanize them in every sphere of life. This was the key to normalization. “If I never met Rosemary,” Shriver noted, “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 Special Olympics ranks as perhaps the most enduring global legacy left by any member of the Kennedy family.

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