WASHINGTON -- Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a civil rights hero, and unique even in that select company. Most civil rights revolutions are made by rhetoric and law -- ignited by protest, summarized in memorable speeches and confirmed at bill signings. In founding the Special Olympics, Shriver led a revolution of sport and competition that forever changed the way Americans view people with intellectual disabilities, and the way that many of the intellectually disabled view themselves. It was America's most joyful civil rights movement -- a revolution of play.
Half a century ago, as she began her activism, images of the mentally retarded (as they were then called) were anything but joyful. They were among the most isolated, overlooked and oppressed citizens in America, often hidden in remote institutions, restrained and medicated, unacknowledged by their families. Placed into clinical categories such as "idiot," "moron," and "imbecile" -- the official, scientific designations -- the intellectually disabled were sometimes subjected to involuntary sterilization and prevented from marrying.
When Shriver began a sports camp for the mentally disabled in her Maryland backyard in 1962, she had little idea what activities they were capable of performing -- because few had ever bothered to physically challenge them. Her own mentally disabled sister Rosemary, however, had been a fine swimmer. So Shriver pushed the children to ride horses, climb trees, jump on a trampoline, and play kickball and tennis. The Special Olympics grew out of this camp, introducing Americans to gymnasts with Down syndrome and runners with intellectual disabilities, striving to the tape. Medals are awarded, parents are proud, crowds cheer -- and images are produced that defy generations of prejudice and fear.
It is, in some ways, an odd movement, applying the values of the Kennedy clan (relentless competition, high expectations, rough play) to a community from which people expected little. Tim Shriver, chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics, describes his mother as "very tough, very demanding." "I never saw her baby an athlete," he told me the day before her death on Tuesday. "She never applauded a last place finish. She wanted to see achievement -- for athletes to run strong, to swim strong. She never had a low expectation problem -- what the mind couldn't do, she thought the body could. It wasn't 'everybody is a winner' -- that wasn't her."