Thoughts on the Passing of Eunice Kennedy Shriver

In the 1950s people with intellectual disabilities generally lived in isolation within private homes or resided in institutions that offered little opportunity for productive activities. After viewing the poor treatment her mentally retarded older sister Rosemary received, Eunice Kennedy Shriver embarked on a multi-decade campaign of advocacy. In 1961 Shriver persuaded her brother President John F. Kennedy to create a division within the National Institutes of Health dedicated to improving the lives of children with developmental delay and disability. In 1962 she established a summer camp in the Washington, DC region for children with intellectual disabilities. She later helped found the Special Olympics, which have become the world’s largest year-round sports program for mentally disabled children and adults. More than 2.5 million athletes in 180 countries take part in competitions each year.

The Special Olympics have given millions of developmentally disabled people and their families a sense of inclusion, acceptance, and accomplishment (You can find the Special Olympics Maryland chapter at Moreover, the Special Olympics exemplified important principles that have generated even more significant advances: that given the right support, people with developmental and intellectual differences can develop their talents and make important contributions to society.

The most noteworthy advances for those with intellectual disabilities over the last 25+ years have come for school-age children. Beginning in the mid-1970s, public schools began to develop special education programs in response to Federal mandates. Speech and language therapists as well as occupational therapists began to develop specialized treatments to serve children with developmental delays, some children began to become able to access these services within school settings. Mental health practitioners began to develop methods for helping families gain support, access services, and maintain family cohesion as they face the challenges of raising developmentally disabled children.

Help for those with developmental differences who are not school age have been slower in coming and less comprehensive, but advances have been made. Beginning in the 1980s, states began to develop programs to detect developmental delay and offer early intervention services for children and families. By the 1990s, all state jurisdictions had developed divisions to serve adults with developmental disability. A number of private and publicly-funded nonprofits as well as public agencies formed that offered intellectually challenged adults vocational services, day care, sheltered workshops, respite care, recreational and socialization opportunities, and residential supports.

The 21st century has brought more progress: advocacy organizations such as the Autism Society of America have greatly increased in size and influence, and have given developmentally disabled Americans a greater political voice. The Social Security Administration has continually modified its regulations, so that disabled people have been able to make ever greater contributions in the workforce and still retain their disability and Medicare benefits. The advent of social networking sites and Egroups has given millions of families opportunities to find information and access support. The last several years has brought a welcome rise in the number of opportunities for those with intellectual disabilities to access post-secondary programs, including certificate programs that offer both life skills and practical job training.

Much more remains to be done to improve the lives of those with intellectual disabilities and their families. While the recent push towards mainstreaming and “full inclusion” of special education students over the past decade has resulted in better services for some students, many children have found themselves in environments that are far less conducive to their development. Services for developmentally disabled adults continue to be limited, and they lack coordination and integration. Nevertheless, the lives of millions of people with intellectual disabilities are far better since Eunice Shriver began her advocacy, and her efforts have been an integral part of this progress.

Posted by Jonah Green

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