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Remembering the Life of Eunice Kennedy Shriver

August 11, 2009 at 9:45 AM EDT
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Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a member of the famed Kennedy family, died Tuesday at 88. An advocate for people with disabilities discusses her legacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the fifth of nine Kennedy children and, growing up in that prominent family, was often overshadowed by her brothers — Joe, John, Bobby and Ted.

But it was her older sister, Rosemary, who inspired her life’s work.

Rosemary was born, as described in those days, mildly retarded and, at age 23, underwent a lobotomy, which made her worse off. She was institutionalized for the rest of her life.

Tim Shriver, one of Eunice’s five children, spoke with our Ray Suarez in 2006.

TIM SHRIVER, chairman, Special Olympics: She tells wonderful stories about in her teenage years sailing with her sister in a very competitive family, where one was expected to come back with a first-place finish in a sailboat race, and going out with Rosemary and realizing right there and then that she could sail, that she could pull on the jib, that she could crew, her sister could do things, and particularly do things in sports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rosemary was largely kept out of the public eye. But in 1962, Eunice Shriver wrote a candid article about mental retardation in an issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The article helped to ease the attached social stigma.

After her brother, John F. Kennedy, was elected president, she used the opportunity to push for the rights of people with intellectual disabilities.

Her brother, Senator Ted Kennedy.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY, D-Mass.: After President Kennedy was sworn in, he used to joke with the other members of the family that he always feared seeing Eunice, because Eunice always had an agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the summer of 1963, she ran a camp for developmentally disabled children and adults at the home in Maryland that she shared with her husband, Sargent Shriver, who helped launch the Peace Corps. Her son, Tim, recalled a remarkable scene.

TIM SHRIVER: I remember very clearly — I don’t remember exactly what age, whether it was five or six years old — I remember looking out my window in the morning and seeing people come from institutions, get off yellow school buses, empty out into my backyard, raise the American flag, sing songs, and then fan out for kickball or for swimming or for horseback riding in this beautiful Maryland farm.

It took me a long time to realize that that wasn’t normal, you know, to have 100 or so young people with intellectual disabilities in your backyard, wasn’t a normal summer activity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That fall, her brother, the president, was assassinated.

TELEVISION REPORTER: Sargent Shriver, his wife, Eunice, the late president’s sister, and three of their four children are among the visitors at the grave.

Launching the Special Olympics

JUDY WOODRUFF: Five years later, another assassination, this time her younger brother, Bobby. But just one month after, she launched the first-ever Special Olympics in Chicago.

EUNICE KENNEDY SHRIVER, founder, Special Olympics: And in ancient Rome, the gladiators went into the arena with these words on their lips: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

JUDY WOODRUFF: And her role was far more than ceremonial.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Her hands-on approach won admiration and understanding from both athletes and the public.

EUNICE KENNEDY SHRIVER: I'm delighted to meet you. Thank you very much. I won't forget. We're friends now, right?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Those athletes saw in her a champion of their own.

LORETTA CLAIBORNE, Special Olympics global messenger: Most of all, I see from Mrs. Shriver that I have rights and we have a right to live and enjoy life to our fullest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eunice Kennedy Shriver received the Medal of Freedom in 1984 from President Ronald Reagan. And three years ago, she was honored again, at a dinner hosted by President George W. Bush.

EUNICE KENNEDY SHRIVER: Let us not forget that we have miles to go to overturn the prejudice and oppression facing the world's 180 million citizens with intellectual disabilities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the four decades since the games began, more than 2 million competitors from more than 150 countries have participated.

EUNICE KENNEDY SHRIVER: You are the stars, and the world is watching you. By your presence, you send a message to every village, every city, every nation, a message of hope, a message of victory. The right to play on any playing 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 anyone's neighbor, you have earned it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eunice Kennedy Shriver was 88 years old.

For more on Eunice Kennedy Shriver's achievements and legacy, we're joined by Andrew Imparato. He's president and CEO of the nonprofit American Association of People with Disabilities.

Andy Imparato, thank you for being here.

ANDREW IMPARATO, American Association of People with Disabilities: It's great to be here.

A health policy expert

ANDREW IMPARATO, American Association of People with Disabilities: It's great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You worked with Eunice Shriver in the early '90s. Tell us about that.

ANDREW IMPARATO: Well, I came to Washington to work for Senator Harkin in the middle of health care reform under the Clinton administration, and I remember Eunice calling the office and wanting to know what was in the bill for people with intellectual disabilities. She was very focused.

She called Senator Kennedy's office, and she called Senator Harkin's office, and she had some ideas about what she wanted in the bill, and they found their way into the bill that got marked up in Senator Kennedy's committee.

So I was just impressed with her passion. I was impressed with how seriously people took her input. She clearly was viewed as a health policy expert by Senator Harkin's office and Senator Kennedy's office, and that was one of many things that she was an expert in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know this field so well. What was it like for people with intellectual disabilities before Eunice Shriver came along?

ANDREW IMPARATO: Well, if you look back at the clip that you just showed, I mean, in the 1960s, we had a lot of people with intellectual disabilities who were stuck in institutions from the moment they were born.

Children would be born. The professionals would tell the parents they have homes where you can send these children. They'll be taken care of for the rest of their lives. And it was basically warehousing human beings.

And I think she saw that there was value in creating opportunities for young people and adults with disabilities to be in the community, to be visible, to have friends, to participate in sports. And you saw that last speech that she gave. She talked about jobs. I mean, over the course of the decades of her leadership, she got more and more interested in health care, jobs, other things that would help improve quality of life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it was the Special Olympics, but it was more than that. So the legacy goes beyond sport, although that was a big central part of it.

ANDREW IMPARATO: I think that's right. Sport was the center, but the Special Olympics describes themselves as a movement. And I think there are a lot of parallels between the Special Olympics movement and the broader disability rights movement.

Both movements, at their core, are about the idea that disability is a natural part of the human experience and you shouldn't be limited in terms of having a full life just because you have a disability.

'An indomitable spirit'

JUDY WOODRUFF: If she hadn't been a Kennedy, could she have done what she did?

ANDREW IMPARATO: Well, I think she could have, because I think it was about her. It was her spirit. She had an indomitable spirit. It wasn't about her last name.

And this movement is full of people that do not have famous last names, but they accomplish things because they'll not let other people stop them. And to me, Eunice was that kind of person. She had fire in the belly, she had passion, and she knew how to get things done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Her brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, is right now battling brain cancer, but I know he's been quoted -- or he was quoted today in a statement as saying that, if it hadn't been for her, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, would not have passed. How do you see that?

ANDREW IMPARATO: Well, I think, again, go back to her leadership in the '60s. She laid the foundation for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which passed in 1975. She laid the foundation for the civil rights laws that led up to the ADA.

So I think that's what he was saying. She was a pioneer, fighting this fight before many of the champions who got the ADA through Congress were even thinking about these issues as civil rights issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So help us understand, Andy Imparato, how hard was it? What was she up against?

ANDREW IMPARATO: Well, you know, I think that she was up against ignorance, she was up against stigma, she was up against prejudice, and I think because at her heart she cared about social justice, she saw disability issues through a prism of civil rights.

And many, many Americans, when she started doing this work, did not see disability that way. They saw it as an issue of charity or an issue of health care, medicine, but they didn't see it as a civil rights issue.

If you couldn't get into a building because it had a, you know, set of steps, that's because you were in a wheelchair. It's not because the building is not accessible.

So I think she helped to recognize that by opening up doors for people with intellectual disabilities, she was helping sensitize America to the fact that this is part of human diversity that we have not done a good job of embracing. And I think she was very effective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Imparato with the American Association of People with Disabilities, thank you very much.