Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics Founder, Dies at 88

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of John F. Kennedy, devoted her life to helping the mentally disabled and founded the Special Olympics as a showcase for their abilities.
By J.Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, 88, a member of a political dynasty who devoted her life to improving the welfare of mentally disabled people and founded the Special Olympics to showcase their abilities, died Tuesday at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass. She had had strokes during the past year, a family spokesman said.

Shriver, a sister of President John F. Kennedy and Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, was credited with playing a major role in changing the perception of mental retardation. When she began her work in the field half a century ago, it was common for mentally disabled people to be placed in institutions that did little more than warehouse them. Through Shriver's programs and hands-on efforts, she demonstrated that with appropriate help, most developmentally disabled people can lead productive and useful lives.

In the 1950s, as executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, she shifted the organization's focus from Catholic charities to research on the causes of mental retardation and humane ways to treat it. In 1963, the foundation, which had been established in honor of a brother killed in World War II, published fitness standards and tests for people with intellectual disabilities that became widely used.

When her brother John became president in 1961, she persuaded him to appoint a committee to study developmental disabilities. An outgrowth of the panel's work was the establishment the next year of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development as part of the National Institutes of Health.

In 1962, in a groundbreaking article in the Saturday Evening Post, Shriver, the fifth of nine children born to Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, disclosed that her older sister, Rosemary Kennedy, was developmentally disabled. The story demonstrated how not to treat the mentally disabled and summoned a change in conditions that existed on a wide scale.

"Like diabetes, deafness, polio, or any other misfortune, mental retardation can happen in any family," Shriver wrote. It was different from mental illness, she said, and there were no grounds for the belief, widely held at the time, that people with the condition were belligerent or unmanageable.

"The truth is that 75 to 85 percent of the retarded are capable of becoming useful citizens with the help of special education and rehabilitation," Shriver wrote. "Another 10 percent can learn to make small contributions, not involving book learning, such as mowing a lawn or washing dishes."

Rosemary Kennedy, born in 1918 and institutionalized from the time she was 23, never had that opportunity. By 1941, she had become increasingly subject to fits of rage and her mental faculties had declined. Concerned about her behavior and the possibility that men would take advantage of her, her father arranged for her to have a prefrontal lobotomy, an experimental operation in which part of the brain was destroyed.

The results were disastrous. Rosemary regressed into an infantlike state in which she could barely speak and spent most of the time staring at walls. Her father arranged to keep her out of sight, first at an institution in New York and then at St. Coletta School in Wisconsin.

Family members were initially told not to visit Rosemary because medical opinion held that such interruptions would be too upsetting for someone in her condition. A spokesman for the Special Olympics said that Shriver and her siblings later became frequent visitors to St. Coletta and included Rosemary in family gatherings and other activities. Rosemary died in 2005.

A Grass-Roots Tenacity

Shriver, a pencil-thin woman with a big, toothy smile, was well known for her willingness to get close to those she was trying to help -- joining children in their games, listening to and encouraging them, talking to their parents.

"I think that really the only way you change people's attitudes or behavior is to work with them," she told an interviewer. "Not write papers or serve on committees. Who's going to work with the child to change him -- with the juvenile delinquent and the retarded? Who's going to teach them to swim? To catch a ball? You have to work with the person. It's quite simple, actually."

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