Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Unsung 'Civil Rights Hero'

By Jason Farago,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 12, 2009 7:30 AM CDT
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Unsung 'Civil Rights Hero'
Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver and his mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington in 2007.   (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

(Newser) – Not too long ago the mentally disabled—or "retarded" people, as we called them then—were often hidden away in medical institutions, neglected by their families, and subjected to horrific policies such as forced sterilization. Eunice Kennedy Shriver changed all that with the Special Olympics, which started in her backyard and now stretches across 120 nations. As Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post, her brothers founded a political dynasty, but Shriver, though as a woman limited by her era, was a legitimate "civil rights hero," leading "a revolution of play."

When critics told Shriver that mentally disabled people might be hurt by defeat, she dismissed it as "baloney"—and added that most people are angry when they lose. The high expectations and lack of sentimentality she offered "helped many of the intellectually disabled into public schools, apartments, jobs, and a measure of independence." For Gerson, "It is difficult to imagine a higher purpose, or a finer epitaph: She made her nation a more welcoming place." (Read more Eunice Shriver stories.)

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