Had she come of age today, there’s no telling how much Eunice Kennedy Shriver would have achieved. Mrs. Shriver, who died Tuesday at 88, is known as the sister of the late President John Kennedy, the late Sen. Robert Kennedy and U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. Yet she was so much more than a sibling to powerful men. In fact, her nephew Bobby Kennedy — son of the late senator — wrote in 1983, “She should have been president. She is the most impressive figure in the family.”
By bringing mental retardation and other disabilities out of the shadows, Mrs. Shriver changed the public’s perception of what kind of lives the disabled could live. She created the Special Olympics, an institution that annually provides millions of disabled people with the challenges, camaraderie and joy of competition, as well as chances to socialize with other people with disabilities. And perhaps most significantly, the Special Olympics breaks down the walls of limitations people tend to put around the disabled. The sporting event began at her farm, and grew to an international event.
In a 1993 story about Mrs. Shriver, U.S. News & World Report wrote: “When the full judgment of the Kennedy legacy is made — including JFK’s Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress, Robert Kennedy’s passion for civil rights and Ted Kennedy’s efforts on health care, workplace reform and refugees — the changes wrought by Eunice Shriver may well be the most consequential.”
Edward Shorter, who wrote “The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation,” echoed this view, asserting that “no family has done more than the Kennedys to change negative attitudes about mental retardation.”
It was not by accident that Mrs. Shriver took on the cause of the mentally retarded. Her sister Rose may have been retarded (or possibly mildly developmentally delayed or suffering with a mental illness). Family patriarch Joseph Kennedy arranged for her to be lobotomized at the age of 23, and it resulted in her being profoundly disabled. After Rose Kennedy’s death in 2005, Mrs. Shriver recalled how fond she was of her sister.
Mrs. Shriver, when her brother was president, help create the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development and the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation. The Los Angeles Times reports that she was so passionate about these concerns that the president “reportedly left an emergency meeting during the Cuban missile crisis” to receive the committee’s report. Her brother Robert once joked, the newspaper reported, “President Kennedy used to tell me, ‘Let’s give Eunice whatever she wants so I can get her off the phone and get on with the business of government.’”
Like her more famous brothers, Mrs. Shriver used the power and privilege of wealth to work for good. Her work stands as an example of how one can make life better for others.