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How one simple gesture started one powerful movement

LOS ANGELES -- Tim Shriver apologized for getting choked up. He was sitting quietly on Sunday, speaking about his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics, of which he is now the chairman, and a conversation they had not long before she died.

"I [said], 'You really have to write a book on your life in the 20th century,'" Shriver recalled telling her. "And she said, 'I have nothing to say.' I was like 'Are you kidding me? Your family? Your life? And you have nothing to say?'

"And she said, 'All I ever did was teach a child with an intellectual disability to swim.'"

As his voice broke, he was struck, presumably, by his mother's humility and grace, by the relative simplicity of that gesture 50 years ago from a woman who loved sports and was fiercely committed to social change.

But it may not be Eunice Kennedy Shriver's greatest legacy.

From the time the five Shriver children were small, Tim remembers people with intellectual disabilities coming to their house and the family's backyard, learning to swim and playing with his brothers and sister.

"My first playmate happened to be a person with intellectual disabilities," Shriver said. "Of course, I didn't know. I was 4 years old and I wasn't sitting there going, 'What's his IQ score?' We learn to play before we learn to differentiate."

Shriver was not pontificating. Though he called it "an enormous bonus, a privilege" to grow up and then suddenly come to the realization that the world makes these distinctions, he said he does not pretend he never fell prey to them or never made judgments.

But what his mother gave him and his siblings -- all of whom are involved in a wide array of charitable involvements and public service, advocacy work for disadvantaged youth and, of course, the Special Olympics -- was the gift of never knowing any better as children.

Kennedy Shriver never sat her kids down and told them they must volunteer their time working with people who had intellectual disabilities. They spent most of their lives simply living it.

Shriver said his mother's love of sports was "the difference-maker," and called that love from a woman who was born in 1921 and grew up among brothers who defined public policy and civil rights as "counterintuitive."

But what she did in exposing her children to those different than themselves was something the Special Olympics still strives for -- de-mystifying those with intellectual disabilities.

The fact that only 13 percent of Americans polled in a recent Shriver Media and Special Olympics International survey said they have a friend with an intellectual disability is all you need to know.

"The younger you introduce children to people who are 'different' and dispel what 'different' means, the more evolved, the more open, the more progressive they are as they get older," explained Tim's older sister, Maria, who sits on the international board of Special Olympics.

"Programs like Best Buddies [an international organization that helps people with intellectual disabilities find employment and social opportunities] and Special Olympics Unified Sports [which teams those with and without intellectual disabilities] build friendships," Shriver added. "And when those people go and start their own businesses, they'll hire a person with intellectual disabilities. They'll include that person in their social group if they've been doing it at a young age, and that's how change happens."

Michael Phelps does not remember exactly when change happened with him, but he remembers being bullied, and it's not unlike what so many people with intellectual disabilities have experienced.

"I can tell you exactly what happened in gym class, when a kid kept flicking my ear from behind me playing volleyball," said the winner of 22 Olympic medals who was attending the Doha GOALS Forum in L.A. -- a global event partnering with Special Olympics in using sports to drive social and economic change -- this weekend with the Shrivers.

"I used to get stepped on off the bus in elementary school. In middle school, I had a teacher tell me I would never be successful in anything I would ever do. For me, I went through it, yes. But it also frustrates me that people don't believe in everybody. We're all human beings, we're all going to make mistakes, we're all perfectly imperfect and we all also deserve a chance."

Unified Sports, which has proven successful in building friendships and social connections between those with and without intellectual disabilities, may just be the future of Special Olympics. Tim Shriver said it's his dream that one day there is an expectation for every school in America to have a Unified team.

Abby Wambach, also at the Doha GOALS forum, is another big believer in sports building social inclusion.

"It's huge and sports gives us an outlet that evens the playing field socially," she said. "Will we have some people who have more talent than others, whether special needs or able-bodied? Yes, but it also makes people see them as human beings ... and makes people realize, 'Maybe I'm not the best at this sport, where this special-needs kid is actually pretty good.' That's a respect factor. Not like, 'I'm going to respect this kid because I feel bad for him.' It's 'I respect this kid because he or she loves what they're doing and is passionate about what they're doing.'"

Maria Shriver hopes for a "label-less society," which would seem like a pretty tall order if she didn't grow up in a house where everyone was welcome. She's hoping it's not such a stretch for everyone to relate.

"I know kids who are not intellectually disabled, but felt like they were in the 'dumb group,' not in the fast-track math class," she said. "So all of us have common points of entry with people who are intellectually disabled. ... Everybody who has been left out, unseen, felt invisible, felt stupid at some point in their life. ... There's so much that brings us together."

The goal, Tim said, is not that everybody is the same, but to embrace the differences.

For his mother, it wasn't any more complicated than teaching kids to swim. And having her own kids jump in the pool.