In Honor of Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day, we are proud to share a thesis paper written on Mrs. Shriver.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver
By Julia Keith
Just 50 years ago, people born with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) were perceived as incapable of learning or contributing to society and were often treated as outcasts. In the early 1960’s, a woman with a vision created the Special Olympics, changing the lives of the mentally disabled and their families forever. This visionary was Eunice Kennedy Shriver. EKS believed that if she created an arena for the mentally disabled to engage in athletics, it would not only provide much needed health benefits from exercise but also self-esteem benefits from competitive sports would develop as well. In addition, EKS believed that if people with intellectual disabilities had the opportunity to demonstrate that they could play and compete in sports, then they would also prove to the world that they were capable of so much more than people believed. By providing people with IDD the opportunity to participate in the Special Olympics, EKS created a better future for the intellectually challenged while forever changing the way the world perceived people with disabilities while. In doing so EKS changed the lives of an entire segment of the world’s population, not only those with IDD but their families as well. Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s work in creating, launching and directing the Special Olympics made her one of the most influential women in history.
EKS had three very important men who influenced her life; her father, Joseph Kennedy (JK Sr.), her brother, John F. Kennedy, and her husband, Sargent Shriver. Her father “wanted to boost his children up the ladder, especially the males.” JK Sr. created a very competitive environment for his children, which led EKS to be driven and competitive, not accepting anything but success. “Eunice’s commitment came from her desire to show her dominating, over controlling parents what she was really capable of on her own.” because of the high expectations of her parents (especially her father) EKS was extremely motivated to succeed. JK Sr. also had a genuine belief in philanthropy and commitment to civic responsibility and donated generously to religious and secular charities including the Boys Club of Boston. EKS embraced this sense of civic duty wholeheartedly. John F. Kennedy, EKS’s younger brother, similarly strove for great success and felt a great desire to serve others as well. As President of the United States he fully supported EKS throughout the Special Olympic Movement . Lastly EKS’s husband, Sargent Shriver was hugely instrumental in her success and achievements. As successful and charitable businessmen, he inspired young people to follow him in the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty movement in the early 1960s . His tremendous support for EKS contributed greatly to her success. “In picking Sargent Shriver, Eunice could not have better prepared herself for the struggle to come on behalf of the mentally retarded.”
To put it bluntly, Sarges’s presence here…has been absolutely crucial to the growth and stability of the Special Olympics program worldwide…his international experience and vision, and his executive capacity has been especially important in ripening the organization
Shriver, a caring and supportive husband, was crucial to EKS’s success, allowing her the spotlight that she deserved rather than taking it all for himself. EKS was constantly exposed to Shriver’s ‘experience’ and ‘vision’, which had strong impact on both her and the Special Olympics. He not only supported her with her goals in creating the Special Olympics but he also contributed to the success of the Special Olympics by using his ‘executive capacity’ and ‘international experiances’. With Shriver supporting her and aiding her in her goals to better the lives of those with IDD, EKS truly could not have picked a better partner. EKS was surrounded by extremely influential and supportive role models, like her father, brother and husband, and while she was determined to what prove what people with IDD were capable of, she also wanted to prove to her family that she could accomplish great things, just like the men did. With these successful and prominent men in her life, EKS had very high expectations for herself and importantly, her cause. This confident attitude propelled EKS to expect great things from the Special Olympics, because growing up surrounded by the success of her father and siblings, she felt that failure was not an option for a Kennedy. Despite living in a mans world, EKS’s competitive attitude, desire for success and sense of philanthropy enabled her to create the wildly successful Special Olympics movement and made her one of the most influential women in history.
EKS’s desire to improve the lives of the mentally disabled had close familial roots. EKS’s sister Rosemary was born with IDD. “Eunice Kennedy Shriver had a particularly close relationship with her older sister, and great empathy for Rosemary and others who faced similar challenges.” This close relationship with her sister inspired EKS to believe that she could help make a better life for all those mentally disabled. This desire to improve the lives of those with IDD intensified after Rosemary was institutionalized upon receiving a lobotomy at the age of 22, which left her permanently incapacitated and unable to care for herself. As a result of this tragedy, EKS became driven to provide people with IDD opportunities that Rosemary did not have. She sought to prevent the mentally disabled from becoming institutionalized and forgotten, because she knew that, “ If the mentally retarded were given a chance they could achieve.” Rosemary inspired EKS to create a better life for those with disabilities . This close personal connection to the mentally disabled mobilized EKS to inspire and influence so many people through the Special Olympics movement. Prior to the 1960’s, many people with IDD had no one to support them or believe in them. Driven by fear, ignorance and often medical advice, families institutionalized their children with IDD, without giving them a chance to show who they were and what they could do with their lives. “Some parents would send their MR children off to institutions and then publish notices of their death in the local papers”. As horrific as it sounds, at the time it seemed like the only option for families, at least that is what they were led to believe.
In the 1950’s 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 shunted from sight as soon as possible.
In creating the Special Olympics, EKS provided another option, enabling families to witness the great abilities of their loved ones rather than “shut them into institutions where their bodies as well as their minds became rusty with disuse.” . In America alone there is an estimated 4.6 million people with IDD , who can take advantage of all that the Special Olympics has to offer and, thanks to EKS, their families are able to see what their loved ones with IDD are truly capable of. EKS believed in great possibilities for people with disabilities and strove to provide opportunities for them to shine. Rather than closing people with IDD behind the doors of an institution, EKS opened the doors to great opportunities for the mentally disabled, making her one of the most influential women in history.
In 1961 the Special Olympics movement began as a summer camp in EKS’s own back yard with the goal of giving the mentally retarded the opportunity to run and play . About 100 athletes participated at “Camp Shriver” which inspired the formation of many similar camps around the United States. One of the more successful organizations inspired by Camp Shriver was at the Chicago Parks Department, which along with the Kennedy Foundation and EKS worked together to organize the first Special Olympic World Games in 1968. At these first World Games, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley declared, “Eunice, the world will never be the same again” This quotation captures the vast impact of EKS’s work. After the first games, it was clear that The Special Olympics, and EKS would change the world. EKS had forever altered not only the lives of athletes participating in these Games, but transformed the way the whole world perceived people with IDD. These first World Games provided at starting point from where EKS began a worldwide movement, which further demonstrates her status as one of the most influential women in history.
With her strong and determined personality EKS was able to strictly focus on her goals and was able to avoid getting entangled in the conflicts and competition of the political arena to which her family often succumbed. EKS did not focus on the political influence and impact of her family but rather focused on her goal of bettering other lives of those with IDD. If she had let herself get entwined in the families’ politics and let them influence her desire to help `those with IDD that way, she may not have been as successful as she was with the creation of the Special Olympics. She was passionate in her desire to create a better life for those with disabilities and her intense passion influenced and inspired those around her. “Rather than channeling this relentless energy into political competition, as her brothers did, Eunice sublimated it into sports.” By putting all her energy into creating athletic opportunities for people with IDD, EKS was able to truly focus on her cause, rather than be distracted by the politics surrounding it. She was so single minded that she disregarded the entrenched belief of that people with IDD were incapable of progress:
Any experts at the time thought people with mental retardation could not learn to play games or would hurt themselves in athletic activities. Eunice Kennedy Shriver felt differently
EKS was so passionate in her conviction that she set out to prove the experts wrong, that in fact it was quite the opposite: the mentally disabled were capable of great things! She ignored their professional opinion and as a result millions of people with IDD have achieved success and fulfillment through the Special Olympics. Not only have achieved success, but their entire family has felt the lasting joy, success and happiness that the Special Olympics has brought to their life. “ Eunice dedicated herself to the cause of mental retardation with the single mindedness of a medieval saint.” Her singular focus and drive helped EKS to succeed in creating the Special Olympics and forever raise the common standard for people with disabilities making her one of the most influential women in history.
EKS’s unconditional faith in those with disabilities paved the way for the success of the Special Olympics movement. EKS declared, “I wanted to convince people if the mentally retarded were given a chance they could achieve.” . She believed so wholeheartedly that those with disabilities could be important members of our society that she set out to change an entire society’s expectations of those with IDD, and prove that they were truly capable of so much more. Her outspoken confidence in their abilities was instrumental in her ability to spread and propel the Special Olympics movement worldwide.
The Special Olympics prove a very fundamental fact. The fact that exceptional children-retarded children-can be exceptional athletes. The fact that through sports they can realize the potential for growth…serves as a pledge that all retarded children will have this chance in the future.
Through the Special Olympics, EKS was able to demonstrate that children with IDD are able to succeed in sports, which helped to convince society that they could to succeed in other aspects of life as well. EKS knew this all along. EKS believed that when given the chance to become successful in athletics, people with IDD would prove that they have the potential to grow and further succeed in other aspects of life as well. EKS said, “More and more people do understand about their many different abilities.” which is a huge step forward from the neglect those with IDD were so used to receiving. By focusing on their abilities rather than their disabilities, EKS led others to do the same and showed the world what people with IDD are capable of. EKS’s confidence in the potential for success of people with IDD directly impacted society’s view on what is possible for those with IDD, demonstrating the overwhelming influence that she had in history.
In the 50 years of Special Olympics sports, millions of intellectually challenged athletes have trained and competed in sports throughout more than 170 countries worldwide . Thanks to EKS, each and every one of those athletes has learned many important athletic skills and perhaps even more important life skills. The Special Olympics teaches the athlete’s physical and athletic skills, as well as important life skills such as sportsmanship, leadership and friendship/friend making skills. It also encourages athletes to set goals for themselves and pursue their dreams outside of sports . Along with friendship-making skills come lasting friendships; with goal setting come accomplishments. Prior to the Special Olympics, people with IDD were not exposed to these essential skills. As a result most people with IDD were not only in poor physical health they also often lacked goals and dreams for their future. The Special Olympic Games provide a taste of what success feels like and inspires the athletes to achieve more in their lives, whether it be with sports or elsewhere . EKS impact on the lives of people with IDD through the Special Olympics is truly monumental and very much exponential in its repercussions.
In addition to the Special Olympics teaching athletes many essential life skills, EKS’s work has also been instrumental in integrating people with IDD into the American fabric. Through the Special Olympics and in her own activism, EKS helped bring mentally disabled Americans to fuller participation in our national life. By inviting people with disabilities further in to our nations life, EKS not only positively influenced their lives but the broadened American nation as a whole! People with IDD were no long hidden behind closed doors in institutions but were finally considered a true part of out nation. As people with IDD became more a part of the American society, another advancement for people with IDD emerged: The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 (CMHA).
The Community Mental Health Act drastically altered the delivery of mental health services and inspired a new era of optimism in mental healthcare. This law led to the establishment of comprehensive community mental health centers throughout the country. It helped people with mental illnesses who were “warehoused” in hospitals and institutions move back into their communities.
Passed by EKS’s brother, former President John F. Kennedy, the CMHA reflects JFK’s support of EKS’s goal to show society how capable people with IDD were. This act was a giant step in bettering the lives of those with IDD. Rather than locking people with IDD away in institutions, it worked toward bringing them back into the community. By establishing comprehensive community mental health centers and bringing those with IDD back into the community, it showed that the government was finally focusing on people with IDD rather than hiding them away. Not only did the CMHA recognize the needs of people with IDD, it sought to better their lives so they could truly become part of the community and the country.
President Kennedy called for society to embrace a new vision for people with mental health disorders and developmental disabilities, one in which the “cold mercy of custodial care would be replaced by the open warmth of community.”
The CMHA was extremely influential in bettering the lives of people with IDD in America and along with their fuller participation in our nation, “More and more doors are opening for people with mental retardation.” Not only was the ideology behind this Act bold and decisive by promoting inclusion of people with IDD into society but also it was incredibly successful:
No other field of health has changed as much and affected as many people as positively as the treatment of people with mental illness. The shift from in-patient to community-based care has created a more humane, effective and dignified network of support and treatment for men, women and children
This shift in the delivery of services was crucial for how those with IDD were cared for. Incorporating those with IDD into the community was best for them had a huge positive impact, because it not only was beneficial for those who are being reincorporated but it also introduced rest of the community to just how wonderful and capable those with IDD can be. EKS’s work to better the lives of those with IDD was extremely impactful in the United States whether it was her influence the Community Mental Heath Act or the Special Olympics as a whole, she was able to positively change the way the government as well as society viewed and interacted people with IDD, which provides more evidence that she was one of the most influential women in history.
EKS not only impacted the lives of millions of people with disabilities, but she also had a huge impact on their families. In 1962, EKS wrote a magazine article about her sister Rosemary , which influenced the way many families who had children with MR felt about their situation and made them realize they shouldn’t be ashamed. This was a huge step for many families because they no longer felt they were alone in their struggle; they realized that a prominent family like the Kennedy’s was going through exactly what they were. In addition to relieving the feeling of shame, EKS created a community of support that grew within the Special Olympics movement. It is a place where families with children or family members with disabilities can support, accept and befriend one another; they no longer have to go about their lives feeling different or alone because they have so many friends that are going through what they are.
Not only the Special Olympic athletes benefit from the Special Olympics. Their families are rewarded, too. In the past parents of children with mental retardation might have felt ashamed. Today they can share the pride and joy of watching their children succeed.
Thanks to EKS’s work in creating the Special Olympics, families are able to experience pride for their children rather than shame. Before EKS’s article about Rosemary, many families did not understand that it was okay to have someone with IDD, that they should not be ashamed and that there were thousands of other families out there going through just what they were, including a prominent family like the Kennedys. The Special Olympics helped families realize that their children can succeed in their sports and then continue to succeed in other parts of their lives. EKS’s impact on all the families who have a child with IDD is incredible, she helped them recognize that they should not be ashamed or embarrassed of their own child but rather be proud and supportive of all that their children could achieve. In addition to changing many parents view of their children, she also created a community of families that have children with IDD. They are no longer alone and they can ‘share’ their ‘pride and joy’ as well as their struggles with others who can truly understand and perhaps give advice! EKS’s influence on the families of people with IDD is one of the most important reasons why she is one of the most influential women in the world, EKS vision permitted parents to view their children in a new light and created a community of support for these families to love and appreciate their children with disabilities.
It can be argued that EKS does not deserve all the credit for creating the Special Olympics. Of course, without the support of her family and others who supported her cause, the great success of the Special Olympics would not have been possible. Her father JK Sr. had the initial idea to focus on the cause of the mentally retarded .
Sometime in the late spring of 1958, Joe Kennedy asked Eunice and Sarge- but mostly Sarge- to take responsibility for organizing a research program for the family foundation on the cause of mental retardation
In the early stages of the Special Olympics, Joe Kennedy Sr. considered Shriver as a leader than more so than Eunice. It was not until later that EKS truly took charge and headed the organization, so admittedly she cannot be credited for all of its success and influence. Yet she did have a tremendous amount of influence over her father and husband and was in fact responsible for the ideology behind the Special Olympics, “If Eunice hadn’t been a sportswoman, she wouldn’t have thought of the Special Olympics.” Shriver acknowledged that it was EKS who had come up with the idea of the Special Olympics. As Edward Shorter author of The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation and history professor noted: “the ideas, the essence of the vision, came from Eunice.” Without the help and support of her family EKS would not have been able to be as successful with the Special Olympics, and with their help she was able to put her ideas and vision in to reality.
Skeptics might also argue that the Special Olympics is not the most effective way to help people with disabilities, claiming that EKS drove attention away from more effective support and advocacy of those with IDD. “In the Special Olympics there is a lack of skill acquisition, and much precious time of functional activity is lost.” This implies that the Special Olympics is taking up precious time for those with IDD and is not doing a good enough job of teaching other important skills. It can also be said that argue that the money and time spent on the Special Olympics could have been better spent on a more effective means of improving the lives of those with IDD. In addition to that argument, some believe that the infectious enthusiasm and cheering that is present at the Special Olympics events do more harm than good.
Not only does the presence of the huggers reinforce the infantilization of adults with severe disabilities, they also reinforce the belief that people with disabilities need to be “helped” by nondisabled people
‘Huggers’ are the volunteers at Special Olympics events that cheer on and support the athletes. Some feel that these ‘huggers’ promote age inappropriateness as well as the belief that people with IDD are dependent on people without disabilities. Quite contrarily, most would argue that having volunteers there to support the athletes and congratulate them further brings up the athletes self-esteem and makes the event more enjoyable for everyone, especially the athletes, who are not often the subject of applause.
The fact that EKS was not the sole contributor to the Special Olympics and the concerns with its effectiveness are two possible opposing arguments against the claim that EKS is one of the most influential women in history. Yet these two arguments pale in comparison to everything that EKS has done that has had a positive effect on the world. The number of people who have benefited immensely from the Special Olympics outshines the small group of people who doubt the effectiveness of the Special Olympics. Even though the creation of the Special Olympics was a group effort, EKS was the inspiration. The concrete proof of her positive influence and success overwhelming compared to the few arguments that attempt to diminish her influence.
Not only was EKS’s positive influence on people with IDD and their families extremely widespread, her incredible influence extended beyond these people. EKS was extremely supportive of women and women’s rights, as well. The American Feminist® named Eunice Kennedy Shriver a Remarkable Pro-Life Woman, because of she was so supportive of all women , and truly believed that women could and should be held to the same standards as any man. EKS was a founder and head of a successful worldwide organization, and did not let any man or person stop her from creating this organization that has helped so many. To do this, EKS had to surpass very successful men, her father and her husband, in order to become as successful as she was.
All the sudden she emerged from the shadows cast by her dynamic husband from the meddlesome control of her father and mother to stand in the spotlight herself.
With her wildly ambitious husband and controlling parents, EKS and her goals were in ‘the shadows’ and not given much attention. Yet she did not let that stop her and demonstrated her belief that women can become just as successful as men and did so by creating a successful worldwide organization, the Special Olympics. She was able to overcome her controlling father who failed to hold his daughters to the same standard as his sons , and “Eunice, presidential material in her own right who possessed all the qualities save the requisite gender, was determined to show her father what she could really do.” She knew that she was just as capable as her brothers or anyone male or female and embraced her cause for MR as a way to prove he father that this was true. Rather than being limited by the views of her father and society on what women are capable of she knew that she could do anything and be extremely successful at it, which enabled her to create the Special Olympic Games. EKS did not comply with society’s norms fro a traditional housewife (fortunately her husband was extremely supportive and helpful towards her success ) but rather she had her own dreams and goals, which she worked to achieve.
EKS inspired and influenced many of her family members to take on a bigger role regarding helping people with disabilities. EKS had a strong impact and influence on her father, Joe Kennedy Sr.
By the fall of 1958, it was clear that the Kennedy foundation had embarked upon an entirely new course: funding science rather than service… The second influence on the financier Joe Senior was his daughter Eunice, whose advice seems to have been crucial in the timing of the switch to science. The redeployment of funds in the late 1950’s to MR research occurred almost certainly as a result of her and Sarges growing influence on the options of the Kennedy foundation.
As a result of EKS’s influence on her father, the Foundation focused its funds and resources on MR research. The Kennedy Foundation was crucial in the forming of Special Olympics and supplied the funds that were an essential part in the creating the successful Special Olympics. Due to her relationship with her father, she gained much influence in the Kennedy Foundation and eventually gained full control of the program in the mid-1960’s. As the leader of the Foundation EKS was able to control the use of the Foundation to aid her with the Special Olympics as well as aid her in her goal of bettering the lives of the disabled. Her influence over her brother, President of the United States, John F. Kennedy was crucial to helping the lives of thousands of Americans who have IDD.
The impact of Eunice Kennedy Shriver cannot be over estimated. Largely due to her influence both personal and the through the work of the Joseph F. Kennedy Jr. Foundation which she headed-President John F. Kennedy in 1961 focused national attention on the issue and established a presidents panel charged with preparing a national plan to combat mental retardation
As recognized in the booklet summarizing documentary We’re Here to Speak for Justice: Founding California’s Regional Centers released in 2000, EKS’s influence was crucial in the forming of the national plan to combat mental retardation. Part of this national plan was the enactment of The Community Mental Health Act of 1963, which was “a bill meant to free many thousands of Americans with mental illnesses from life in institutions. It envisioned building 1,500 outpatient mental health centers to offer them community-based care instead.” As previously noted, The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 was an extremely important component of the deinstitutionalizing of America and created more options and a better life for those with IDD. The federal government created a national plan that focused on the ways to improve the lives of those with IDD, thanks to EKS inspiration to and influence on her brother. Her influence did not end here, for “The influence she left on her family has kept that torch burning past her death.” Her son, Anthony Shriver created Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her other son Mark Shriver, created Save the Children’s Early Childhood Education Program and “reinvigorated literacy, nutrition, and fitness work in the United States through partnerships with more than 160 schools in some of the most impoverished regions of the country.” Her son Tim Shriver was Chairman and CEO Special Olympics for 14 years and is currently its Chairman of the board. Tim Shriver followed in his mother footsteps by creating Special Olympics Healthy Athletes®, Special Olympics Get Into It®, and Unified Sports® which are all new Special Olympic programs that focus on athlete leadership, cross-cultural research, health, education, and family supports . These are just a few of the countless family members that have felt EKS’s overarching influence. Her legacy of Shriver family members have continued to support and aid her in her mission to better the lives of those with IDD further supports that she is one of the most influential women in history.
EKS shined at a time in history when it was rare for a woman to play a prominent role in a large endeavor. She not only changed the lives of millions of people with intellectual disabilities and their families but also lit the spark that led to a fundamental change in the way society views people with IDD. Her creation of the Special Olympics led to changes in public policy and innovations in medicine, education and societal acceptance of the intellectually challenged.it has been said that “The sun never sets on the Special Olympics” , this far reaching global impact the Special Olympics demonstrates the enormity of EKS’s influence on the world; EKS was truly one of the most influential women in history.
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