Eunice Kennedy Shriver Opened a World to Those With Disabilities.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"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.' . . . Let us begin the Olympics."

On a sunny July day in 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver spoke these words at Chicago's Soldier Field to an assembled group of 1,000 intellectually disabled athletes and 100 fans from 26 states and Canada. They are now the official oath of the Special Olympics.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a gladiator for a new age. Born into the closest thing America had to a royal family, this middle Kennedy child had a love of sports and an ability to see potential where others saw disability. Moved by the experience of her developmentally disabled sister, Rosemary Kennedy, and by the struggles of other people with disabilities at the facilities where she visited and worked, Ms. Shriver became an advocate for a population that had long lacked a voice.

She attended Stanford University and served in the State Department before taking the helm of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, established to combat the causes of intellectual disability and to improve the way society dealt with individuals with disabilities. Beginning in the summer of 1962, she hosted Camp Shriver at her Maryland farm, an outdoor camp for mentally disabled children to whom other summer programs were shut. Ponies roamed the lawn, children raced and threw balls, and the dream of a new kind of life for those with disabilities was born.

So when someone suggested a race for Chicago children with intellectual disabilities, the vision sparked to life: not a one-time race but a biennial Special Olympics, founded on the principle that, as Ms. Shriver later said, "all human beings are created equal in the sense that each has the capacity and a hunger for moral excellence, for courage, for friendship and for love."

Much was given to Ms. Shriver, a Kennedy whose life was destined to play out on the national stage. But she used her influence not to build her own capital or advance her own interests but to help others, to open a world of new possibilities to a population that had been confined to silence and darkness. Under her guidance, the Kennedy Foundation transformed a seemingly impossible vision into an inspiring reality. Where once scarcely 1,000 athletes competed, the Special Olympics now encompasses nearly 3 million athletes from 180 countries.

Yet the numbers alone fail to convey their impact. Founded in an era when those with intellectual disabilities were institutionalized and shut out of the mainstream, the Special Olympics offered participants the opportunity to transcend their limitations and become athletes. The games promote health and self-reliance, inspire friendships, and give rise to tremendous courage. By giving men, women and children with disabilities the ability to compete on a global stage, Eunice Kennedy Shriver proved that they could play on other playing fields, hold jobs, and be students and neighbors.

Her legacy lives on in the millions of people she empowered to strive on the field of competition and beyond -- and to be brave in the attempt.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company