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Michael R. Gardner

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Eunice Kennedy Shriver's Legacy

Posted: 08/14/09 12:14 PM ET

Eunice Kennedy Shriver died this week at the age of 88. This younger sibling and special friend of the late President John F. Kennedy left five children, 19 grandchildren, and a devoted husband, this country's first Peace Corps Director, Sargent Shriver. Most importantly, Eunice Shriver left a vibrant global legacy: a world where developmentally disabled children and adults now live with dignity and the real promise of productive lives.

Eunice Shriver's legacy is profound -- and more important in its long-term humanitarian impact than all the accomplishments of a Kennedy family that has been such a vital part of this country's political landscape.

In the early 1960's, as a Georgetown University undergraduate, I watched first hand as the tireless sister of the 35th President pioneered the use of sports -- including horseback riding -- to demonstrate how mentally challenged children could succeed.

In those days, mentally challenged children were largely out-of-sight, hidden away because of the pervasive stigma associated with their limitations. The prospect of these youngsters succeeding at anything -- especially sports -- was viewed as preposterous.

But it wasn't preposterous to Eunice Shriver. Through her summer camp for challenged youngsters at Timberlawn, the Shriver's Rockville, Maryland estate, and through an annual accredited Maryland horseshow at Timberlawn staffed by those youngsters, the press began to appreciate the validity of Eunice Shriver's vision about the mentally challenged: if given a chance, this scorned segment of our national population had enormous untapped potential.

On Capitol Hill and in State Houses across the country, Eunice Shriver seized every opportunity to use her Kennedy family status to persuade policy makers to recognize the long neglected legal rights of the developmentally disabled. Because of her relentless advocacy, laws were enacted at the federal and state level, and courts began to recognize that the Constitution did, in fact, apply to this country's mentally challenged.

I was there on a hot July day in 1968, just weeks after her younger brother Bobby died of an assassin's bullet, Eunice Shriver walked through Chicago's Soldiers Field, enthusiastically cheering on hundreds of mentally challenged youngsters participating in the first Special Olympics. Despite her grief, Eunice Shriver was determined to create an exciting national media event that would showcase the unlimited potential of mentally challenged youngsters. And despite initial cynicism about an "Olympics for the retarded?" the first Special Olympics proved to be an exhilarating event for the hundreds of exhausted young athletes and the thousands of volunteers energized by Eunice Shriver.

In December 1968, as the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to France, Eunice Shriver persuaded the very private Madame Charles de Gaulle, wife of France's President, to attend a televised Christmas party for mentally challenged youngsters at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Paris. As newlywed house guests of the rambunctious Shriver family, my wife and I marveled at Mrs. Shriver's media savvy in recruiting the French President's wife to help open the minds and hearts of French citizens who hid their developmentally disabled children from public view. Ironically, the public had no knowledge of the De Gaulle's deceased mentally challenged daughter, Anne. When French television aired footage of the animated children interacting with the puppeteers and Madame de Gaulle, Eunice Shriver shattered another taboo: she showed viewers throughout France that these children could laugh and play, just like "normal" kids.

Throughout the past five decades, as the pivotal force behind the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, Eunice Shriver aggressively used her senior sibling status in the Kennedy clan to direct millions of dollars into medical research to benefit the developmentally disabled. And as officials know at countless medical institutions across this nation, no one could get more bang from her family's foundation dollars than Eunice Shriver.

Today, the Special Olympics have become a global success -- annually attracting tens of thousands of spirited mentally challenged competitors to games in 165 countries. Importantly, regardless of who wins a gold medal, every Special Olympics from Capetown to Chicago has been a self esteem enhancing adventure for these young athletes.

Beyond the obvious success of the Special Olympics, these international games also have been the catalyst for a global cultural change in attitude: today's mentally challenged children and adults in this country - and throughout the globe, enjoy lives full of dignity, acceptability and hope. For countless future generations of developmentally disabled women and men, they too will live in a world where their lives can be productive and joyful, thanks to Eunice Kennedy Shriver.