is the chairman of Special Olympics, which provides year-round training
and competition in 180 countries for millions of athletes with intellectual
disabilities. His late mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the
organization, and his father, Sargent Shriver, was a former US Ambassador
to France. (President Kennedy was his uncle, and journalist Maria
Shriver his sister.)
Recently Shriver and his brother, Anthony, who founded the volunteer-service
organization Best Buddies, worked together to create the Eunice Kennedy
Shriver Challenge event to honor their mother and promote wider inclusion
of those with intellectual and developmental disabilitiesa condition
that affected their late aunt Rose Marie Kennedy. Here Shriver speaks
with ABILITYs Chet Cooper.
Chet Cooper: When did you officially get involved with Special Olympics?
Timothy Shriver: I started in a professional capacity about 18 years
ago. Its been an extraordinary experience. Ive witnessed
some of the most amazing growth, volunteer commitment and change in
country after country, community after community, family after family,
than you could possibly imagine.
Cooper: Your mother started it all. Did you get to tag along?
Shriver: I was about four or five when my mother started a summer
camp. I can still envision the campers arriving at our house, playing
games all over the backyard. There were obstacle courses and ponies,
our home became the center of activity. It was my mothers first
experiment in using sports and recreation as a tool for promoting
inclusion and healthy development; she wouldnt have used those
terms, but thats what she was trying to do. It had two primary
effects: One, everybody had a lot of fun, and two, I took notice of
people who were different than I was.
So that first exposure to people with intellectual challenges was
associated with enjoyment and shared hope. All we wanted to do was
ride a pony, play kickball, swim in the pool, and go on an obstacle
Cooper: That sounds like my typical day.
Shriver: (laughs) Whenever I can! Thats my life, trying
to get back to square one.
Cooper: As the organization has expanded have you traveled to different
parts of the world?
Shriver: Ive never done a count, but I think Ive had the
privilege of visiting about 50 countries, over the last 15 years.
Big ones like China and India, small ones like Panama, El Salvador
and Bosnia. Special Olympics is in 180 countries now. Every country
in South America, pretty much every country in Europe, most of Asia,
and two-thirds of Africa.
Cooper: Where are the biggest areas of growth?
Shriver: India and China, in terms of new athletes.
Cooper: Was Special Olympics doing international work prior to
your coming aboard?
Shriver: Not really, although my mother did try to learn from other
countries in the 60s. There were scholarly visits and conferences
that might take place in Scandinavian countries. When I was almost
10 years old, our family moved to France, and for two years my mother
pursued her interest in intellectual disability there, and started
organizing small activities with Paris organizations, mostly reaching
out to families of kids who had special needs to provide activities
for them. But the robust international expansion of Special Olympics
really started in the late 70s and 80s. My dad was more
responsible for that than anybody. I didnt have a lens on that,
really, until I joined the organization in the late 90s, and
thats also when that expansion started to really accelerate
in terms of the number of athletes and volunteers participating.
Cooper: Such rich history. What did you do prior to becoming full
time at the Special Olympics?
Shriver: I spent 15 years in public educationsome in special
educationas a teacher. I would look at risk, resilience, and
how schools can be better at preventing problem behaviors or promoting
Cooper: So theres a little bit of crossover between what
you do now, and what you did then. Did you also address attitudinal
shifts, self-esteem and things along those lines?
Shriver: Attitudinal shifts both ways, in terms of the people who
have been handed vulnerabilities and challenges, and in terms of society
and cultural shifts. You know kids coming from very difficult economic
circumstances in urban areas are in some ways discriminated against
in ways that are similar to the way people with intellectual disabilities
are discriminated against. People are afraid of them. People sometimes
assume that they dont have skills, gifts or abilities to contribute.
So I started out thinking I was going to be in a helping profession,
and very quickly found myself working for social change, and thats
Cooper: Thats the core of what were trying to do at
Shriver: Exactly. Its about changing the paradigm. Speaking
of which, on a total tangent, have you ever heard the word diffability?
Cooper: Not often, but Ive been part of discussions to change
the word disability. I dont think it was a good
good move when they changed handicap to disability.
I get why they did it, but everyone I ask never thinks of the word
handicap as hand-in-cap. They think of it
as they do in horse racing or golf, as a way to make the playing field
even. The word disabled usually means not working. Weve
done a pretty good job, in some quarters, of changing it to ability.
Many large organizations have changed their names to ability-something.
We kind of started a trend 20-some years ago.
Shriver: Good stuff.
Cooper: Were you the one who expanded and opened up China, or was
that your father?
Shriver: My dad went over there in the late 80s, maybe 88,
89, and had the first round of meetings, and then when I arrived,
we did the games in Shanghai. That created several relationships with
people in positions of enormous influence, who came and saw what we
were doing. Over the following year or two we worked with them to
develop a major national transformation strategy that launched with
a big torch run on the Great Wall, getting the government to adopt
new targets around participation in sports, community-based housing,
rehab programs, and vocational rehab work. Our work accelerated significantly
after 2000, but the actual planting of the flag, so to speak, was
done well before me.
Cooper: Do you know a person named Wei? I met him at the United
Nations during the CRPD.
Shriver: I know him well; hes in the China Disabled Persons
Federation, Weve had a couple of crazy adventures together,
hes a very fun guy.
Cooper: Yes he is. He came out to California and I toured him around.
Weve created a partnership with Chinas magazinesSpring
Breeze and Chinese Persons with Disabilities. Also together were
putting on the first US artists with disabilities exhibition in Beijing
Shriver: They have a lot of terrific arts programs theyve done
Cooper: True. It helps us to grow internationally. How has Special
Olympics evolved over the years?
Shriver: In 2000, less than a million athletes participated, today
over four million are involved. In 2000, about 60 percent were American,
but these days 70-plus-percent are from outside the US. Before 2000
unified sports programs were small, almost boutique, today they have
become a major component and are growing rapidly. And we currently
do 150,000 annual health screenings, whereas in 2000, when we were
just starting them, we did one or two.
Over the last six years, weve put a couple hundred thousand
athletes into our Young Athletes programs. Our self-advocacy and empowerment
training programs were born within that same time frame. Between 15,000
and 20,000 athletes around the world go through those programs in
a year. So its quite a different movement today. There are now
a million athletes in India, and over a million in China, which is
half the Special Olympics world. Its a big change. Going forward
our biggest growth will be in the global south and in countries of
extreme poverty, where the need is greatest. That challenges us to
change in many, many ways.
At the same time, in the US our biggest growth will probably be in
early childhood and school-based work, where were pushing for
a broader view of who gets a chance to play sports in American schools.
Usually its the elite athletes, while non-elite athletes are
left out. If theres a boys basketball team, the kids on
it are the best in the school. The same is true for the girls. So
were advocating a whole different view of who ought to have
a chance to play, pushing our model of unified or inclusive sports
as a way to reduce the bullying and isolation that too many kids face.
Theres a lot to accomplish.
Cooper: Whats the standard when you compete? Is everyone
Shriver: Our view is that everybody is a competitor and that, in and
of itself, makes you a winner because youre in the game. But
everybody doesnt get a gold medal. You get a gold medal if you
win at your ability level. If you run the hundred meters in three
minutes, you will have a chance to run against somebody else who runs
the hundred meters in three minutes, and if you win that, you win.
If you run the hundred meters in 13 seconds, you will have the chance
to run the hundred meters against someone who runs the hundred meters
in 13 seconds, and if you win that, you win.
People will say you should quit running if youre a slow runner.
Or you should quit basketball if you cant dribble with your
left hand. We dont agree with that. If youre not a very
good reader at 14, nobody thinks you should stop reading. We believe
there should be universal access to sports throughout life; our athletes
are powerful evidence of why thats important, and theyre
pioneers in showcasing the value of sport as a vehicle for individual
development and social change...
in ABILITY Magazine
You can read
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from the Special
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