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Eunice Kennedy Shriver: a voice for Developmental Disabilities

By Renee Manfredi, Hawaii DD Council Member and Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger

Women’s History Month always brings amazing women to mind.  As a woman and an individual with an Intellectual & Developmental Disability, the one woman who comes to my mind right away is Eunice Kennedy Shriver. I am not sure people realize all that has been accomplished by her crusade for people with I/DD. As early as 1948, Mrs. Shriver began her challenge to change the world for persons with IDD. She took a stand against the discrimination that people with I/DD faced: “we were excluded, neglected, or lived our lives in an institution”. She brought the plight of the circumstances that people with I/DD were living into the attention of the leaders of our country & said that people with I/DD were people of value that must be included in society. When she began her mission to break down these barriers there were many who said, “just leave them where they are”, some even said, “they’re happy where they are”. But she knew better & she did not back down. She was the guiding force behind a federal commitment to address & change these circumstances.

Being a woman of ACTION and not just words, she demonstrated what inclusion looked like with something she loved, sports. She believed “that if people with intellectual disabilities were given the same opportunities and experiences as everyone else, they could accomplish far more than anyone ever thought possible.”

And in 1962 she began a sports camp in her own backyard, Camp Shriver. She invited individuals with I/DD from local institutions to her home to participate in a variety of sports. What began with dozens of young people grew each year and by July 1967, 7000 athletes attended Camp Shriver-type day camps. With her passion for the abilities of people with I/DD, she created Special Olympics. On July 20, 1968, the first Special Olympics World Games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. 1000 Athletes with I/DD competed in these incredible games from both Canada and the U.S. This was the first event ever of its kind. Eunice’s remarks during the 1987 Opening Ceremonies is one of the most inspirational and powerful speeches I think I’ve ever heard.

She stood in front of all the athletes, their families, and the world & claimed, “The right to play on any field. YOU HAVE EARNED IT. The right to study in any school. YOU HAVE EARNED IT. The right to hold a job. YOU HAVE EARNED IT. THE RIGHT TO BE ANYBODY’S NEIGHBOR. YOU HAVE EARNED IT!”. AND right there, she changed the world’s view, challenged the common misconceptions that people with I/DD could do so little because she believed so deeply in the ABILITIES of individuals with IDD like me.  Eunice shared, at that first Special Olympics games, that, “In ancient Rome, before the gladiators went into battle, they went with these words on their lips, ‘Let me win, But if I cannot win, let me be BRAVE IN THE ATTEMPT?’ “ Where would I be without the bravery & determination of Mrs. Shriver? I am not quite sure. I have a difficult time imagining life for someone like me in 1962.  Would I have been locked away? Would I know my family? Would I have ever gone to school & learned to read or write?  Here I am, included in my community, pursuing goals & dreams, believing I have a place in this world. Knowing I have value.

Her goal was to for the rights & acceptance of people with I/DD. She had to change the misconceptions & show the world that people with I/DD were people of value. I proof that she did just that. She faced a lot of opposition, not just to change the lives of individuals with I/DD, but also as a WOMEN trying to change the lives of individuals with I/DD in the 1950s & 1960s. Despite this, she was never backed down. SHE WAS BRAVE IN THE ATTEMPT. She carried that oath within her heart. AND I would not be where I am today without her passionate efforts on behalf of people with I/DD. Eunice was fearless. I am so grateful that she believed that “There is no purpose nobler than to build communities of acceptance for all.”