Timothy Shriver 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 disabilities—a condition that affected their late aunt Rose Marie Kennedy. Here Shriver speaks with ABILITY’s 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. It’s been an extraordinary experience. I’ve 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 mother’s first experiment in using sports and recreation as a tool for promoting inclusion and healthy development; she wouldn’t have used those terms, but that’s 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 course.
Cooper: That sounds like my typical day.
Shriver: (laughs) Whenever I can! That’s 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: I’ve never done a count, but I think I’ve 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 didn’t have a lens on that, really, until I joined the organization in the late ’90s, and that’s 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 education—some in special education—as a teacher. I would look at risk, resilience, and how schools can be better at preventing problem behaviors or promoting pro-social behaviors.
Cooper: So there’s 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 don’t 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 that’s persisted.
Cooper: That’s the core of what we’re trying to do at the magazine.
Shriver: Exactly. It’s about changing the paradigm. Speaking of which, on a total tangent, have you ever heard the word “diffability”?
Cooper: Not often, but I’ve been part of discussions to change the word “disability.” I don’t 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. We’ve 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; he’s in the China Disabled Persons Federation, We’ve had a couple of crazy adventures together, he’s a very fun guy.
Cooper: Yes he is. He came out to California and I toured him around. We’ve created a partnership with China’s magazines—Spring Breeze and Chinese Persons with Disabilities. Also together we’re putting on the first US artists with disabilities exhibition in Beijing next year.
Shriver: They have a lot of terrific arts programs they’ve done there.
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, we’ve 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 we’re pushing for a broader view of who gets a chance to play sports in American schools. Usually it’s the elite athletes, while non-elite athletes are left out. If there’s a boys’ basketball team, the kids on it are the best in the school. The same is true for the girls. So we’re 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. There’s a lot to accomplish.
Cooper: What’s the standard when you compete? Is everyone a winner?
Shriver: Our view is that everybody is a competitor and that, in and of itself, makes you a winner because you’re in the game. But everybody doesn’t 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 you’re a slow runner. Or you should quit basketball if you can’t dribble with your left hand. We don’t agree with that. If you’re 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 that’s important, and they’re pioneers in showcasing the value of sport as a vehicle for individual development and social change.
Cooper: Do you have athletes who have competed in Special Olympics moving into the Paralympics?
Shriver: There are a handful of people who have competed in both, and many who compete in our event are gifted enough to compete in the traditional Olympics. On many occasions, we’ve noted that athletes competing in our games would not have been last-place finishers had they competed in the conventional Olympics in the same event, in the same year. So there are many athletes who perform at very high levels, and there are many athletes who perform at the opposite end of the ability spectrum, but who are no less worthy of their competitive bona fides.
People sometimes ask us, “Who’s got the world record for the Special Olympics?” We don’t keep those records. We’re not looking for one athlete to pin our brand to. We’re not trying to say, “This is the most high achieving Special Olympics athlete in history because he ran the marathon in two hours and X minutes, or swam the English Channel in X number of hours.”
Cooper: Do your athletes go on to become volunteers?
Shriver: Tons of them do; many do fundraising, some coach. We have programs for athletes who have become accredited officials; we have athletes involved as photographers and board members—the whole range. We are inclusive in every manifestation of the Special Olympics movement. Within our organization, a person with an intellectual disability can take on any task or function and have an opportunity to excel and contribute.
Cooper: Are you doing anything in the area of employment?
Shriver: If you look at employment traditionally, no. But if you look at the life skills and 21st century skills that we help develop that are critical to employability, we do a lot in those areas. We’ve collected data in a new Gallup poll that shows that people with intellectual disabilities who have been participating in Special Olympics are three times more likely to be employed than people of a similar age, ethnic and socioeconomic status who have not been participating.
It’s a correlation, not a causation as far as the statisticians go, but the fascinating question is; Is there something in participation in sports, in community-building, confidence building, self-image-building, strength building, social networking—that greatly enhance employability? We don’t consider ourselves to be an employment-training program, but there’s an interesting paradigm shift that may suggest that programs like ours are powerful contributors to employability.
Cooper: You partner with Best Buddies?
Shriver: Many Best Buddies clubs and Special Olympics clubs work together around activities and events on college campuses and high school campuses. But we don’t need a protocol of agreement or anything like that.
Cooper: Do you know the founder?
Shriver: (laughs) Yeah! We know those people.
Cooper: What is your daily schedule like?
Shriver: I spend a lot of time trying to get out into the field and talk to our teams and learn what they’re doing, in this country and around the world, so I travel quite a lot. I try to elevate our voice, so that policymakers, opinion leaders, foundations and governments pay more attention to people with intellectual disabilities and their gifts. And then I spend a bunch of my time just trying to make sure we get better. I want it to be the best run, most effective not-for-profit organization in the world. To do that we need to always know what kind of results we’re getting; how efficient we are at delivering the results we promise; and how to get the most change out of every dollar people contribute.
Cooper: How much change?
Shriver: (laughs) I want change big-time. I want to change the cycle of stigma and prejudice that destroys lives all over the world every day. Until we can get in front of people and awaken them to the idea that this is not acceptable, it’s very difficult for people to appreciate what we do and change the way we act as a society. We can’t have close to 90 percent of those prenatally diagnosed with an intellectual disability being aborted; 90 percent not going to school; more than 90 percent reporting discrimination in the healthcare system; and 90 percent unemployed, and tell ourselves that we’re doing a good job. The obstacles to leading a full life for the vast majority of people with intellectual disabilities are far beyond what they should be, and far beyond what we should tolerate. So yeah, I want change.
Cooper: Sounds like you have the temperament for it. It seems like your family has it in their DNA.
Shriver: It’s rewarding, energizing work, and I’m very grateful for it.
Cooper: Do you think your family name helps you get in the door with key people throughout the world?
Shriver: I’m sure that my name and people who’ve done the work to build this organization help me get access. But as a friend of mine once told me, a lot of people get doors to open, and yet they turn out to be revolving doors where they end up back on the outside. Our challenge is not as much about getting access to the door, as it is about making sure it’s not revolving, and that we remain on the inside. And that’s not easy. We’re successful some of the time and unsuccessful at other times.
Cooper: Does Special Olympics publish a magazine
Shriver: We used to publish a glossy PR kind of thing, but we don’t any more. Now all the information is online.
Cooper: Why don’t we develop a Special Olympics section in ABILITY Magazine?
Shriver: That’d be fabulous. I’d love to do that with you. I really appreciate your interest and what you’re doing. That’d be a win-win.