Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Eunice Kennedy Shriver: A Torch Was Lit: A Torch Still Burns
It is tempting in our work with people with disabilities to steal accomplisments and to co-opt success. It is tempting to see the world, and it's changes, as a result of our work and our passion. It is tempting to see people with disabilities as the grateful beneficiaries of our munificence - gosh aren't we great?
What I really remarked from listening, over the years, to the speaches of Eunice Kennedy Shriver is that she managed to resist temptation. She managed to place in the hands of people with disabilities the reponsibility to change the world and the recognition for their active part in social change. Shriver was one of the first to really conceptualize people with intellectual disabilities as a legitimate minority with a responsibility and a mandate to cause social change by challenging social prejudice. In one of her most magnificent pieces of oratory she said: The right to play on any playing field? You have earned it. The right to study in any school? You have earned it. The right to hold a job? You have earned it. The right to be anyone’s neighbor? You have earned it!
And she was right. We may set the stage, but people with disabilities must act upon it. We may integrate a school, but people with disabilities need to walk down the hallway. We may start Special Olympics but people with disabilities need to show up and run. Schriever, rightly, saw that 'opportuntiy' was all that was lacking in the lives of people with disabilities. She saw the world as a place where it was possible to succeed if possibilities were available.
Many years ago I was hired to attend, and report on, the Special Olympics World Games when they were here in Toronto. I was a skeptic, at best, when I went in. I had been spoon fed negative stereotypes of Special Olympics. But free of all rhetoric, I was able to watch and form my own opinion. I was stunned at what I saw. I saw competition. I saw respect. I saw a kind of inclusion that I'd never understood before. I left changed.
I wrote a piece as a result of that experience called Hot Fudge Sunday, first published in the TASH newsletter, it was reprinted in newsletters all over North America. One day, months later, I openned a letter from Sargent Shriver thanking me for what I had written and for having the courage to speak honestly, and without prejudice, about what I had seen. I was amazed at the letter I held in my hand. I felt the faintest touch of the 'magic' that comes with THAT name.
Special Olympics aside, and that's a big aside, what really moves me about Eunice Shriver is the fact that she decided to go public about her sister, Rosemary. While the subject of Rosemary's life is complicated and shrouded in family secrecy, what is clear is that it was Eunice that visited her, Eunice that kept the family contact alive, and Eunice who claimed her. In an era where disability, particularly intellectual disability, was a source of familial shame, Eunice came forward and embraced her sister, disability and all, publically. This act of sisterly love, this act of family unity, moves me still. There is power in truth and there is strength in declaration. By publically placing her arm around her sister's shoulders, she demonstrated that love is an act of inclusion.
Today is a day to remember and celebrate the life of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She reminded us that it’s possible to change the world. She reminded us that it’s possible to have a vision of a just world. She reminded us of the power of just one person in the life of another person.
“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in my attempt” is the Special Olympics pledge. Eunice Kennedy Shriver had the best of both, she won, and was brave in the attempt. Rest Well.
Timothy Shriver, her son, who now heads Special Olymics has asked people to go to a Eunice Kennedy Shriver website to leave messages, memories and memorials. While there you can here the quote I used to begin this blog recorded live. It is nice to hear her voice so strong and vibrant - but it's also nice to hear the cheer at the end as people with disabilities with one voice shouted 'RAH!'