All the world knows John F. Kennedy and probably Robert and Edward Kennedy. But what about their sisters Eunice, Jean and Rosemary? Their worldwide impact on people with disabilities - especially intellectual disabilities - has been immeasurable and it is worth taking note during this month when we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 40th anniversary of VSA: Very Special Arts.
Rosemary Kennedy was the first daughter born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Although her intellectual disabilities were hidden for many years because of the stigma attached to such conditions, Rosemary inspired her sisters Eunice and Jean to open the doors wide for others with disabilities. Eunice Kennedy Shriver started a summer camp in her backyard that grew into Special Olympics, with the first summer games for children and adults with intellectual disabilities held in Chicago in 1968. This week, more than 6,500 athletes from 165 countries are competing in 25 sports in the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.
"Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt."
Special Olympics Motto
Egypt has 68 athletes participating in 12 of those sports, including boccia, athletics, aquatics, equestrian, bowling, basketball, handball, football, table tennis, tennis, powerlifting and badminton. In Egypt, Al Ahram covered news of the delegation; in the United States for the first time ever, the major sports network ESPN is offering daily television coverage. There are also delegations from United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Afghanistan.
Here in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., we are especially watching Terrell Limerick, who is scheduled to become the first American to sail in the highest level 5 solo competition. We also know Terrell from the ArtStream stage, a local inclusive theatre company. Inclusive companies, communities and organizations focus on abilities, not disabilities, saying to people with physical or mental challenges, “You are welcome here!”
The ADA, signed in 1990, helps make this possible by prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina strives to promote social inclusion of children with special needs, writing in a brochure about its programs that “Our goal is to develop their skills, improve their living conditions and to raise public awareness and tolerance of their special needs through provision of services to the children and their families. Hardware, software and other resources that support the appropriate needs of the children with different types of disabilities are available at the children’s and young people’s libraries.”
In 1974 another Kennedy sister - Jean - started Very Special Arts, now known simply as VSA, with 4 goals:
1) Every young person with a disability deserves access to high quality arts learning experiences.
2) All artists in schools and art educators should be prepared to include students with disabilities in their instruction.
3) All children, youth, and adults with disabilities should have complete access to cultural facilities and activities.
4) All individuals with disabilities who aspire to careers in the arts should have the opportunity to develop appropriate skills.
On July 26, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. hosted a celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act and VSA that defied stereotypes and expectations. Young blind pianist Justin Kauflin performed a jazz solo while his service dog sat quietly next to the piano. Niv Ashkenazi played the violin from his wheelchair. J.P. Illarramendi, a young actor with Down Syndrome, eagerly said that he had “never once been afraid of being in front of an audience.” Jeff Rosen, the deaf chairman of the National Council on Disability said he was not “disadvantaged by my body, but by the opinions and oppression of others.” Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zayid, who has cerebral palsy, quipped that “Taylor Swift shakes voluntarily, I do it involuntarily,” agreeing with Rosen that “access is one barrier, discrimination is even bigger.”
Tear down the walls of exclusion. Follow in the huge footsteps of Rosemary, Eunice and Jean Kennedy. The next step is to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. So far, 143 countries have ratified the Convention - including Egypt back in 2008. Unfortunately, even though the United States has a long list of inclusive opportunities, it has still not ratified the Convention - despite many strong advocacy groups. Twenty-five years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, we have accomplished a lot - and we have a long way to go.