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Special Olympics, A Mom's POV

This article is more than 13 years old.

This evening, the Kennedy Library is hosting a tribute to the woman who founded one of the largest athletic organizations in the world.

It was 1962 when Eunice Kennedy Shriver introduced sports for people with intellectual disabilities. Since then, Special Olympics has grown from her backyard into a global movement, with two and a half million athletes in 165 countries.

But, for commentator Susan Senator, of Brookline, Special Olympics has been about much more than just sports.


I sometimes wonder what was going through Eunice Kennedy Shriver's head when she sowed the seed of Special Olympics in 1962, turning her backyard into a summer camp for disabled kids.

They say it was for Rosemary, her older learning disabled sister. That Eunice saw how difficult things were for her and was inspired by her struggle. She also saw that including Rosie — with the right support — usually worked out well.

It is certainly true that having a disabled person in your life can really alter your perspective. You become very familiar with the unforgiving underside of the world, the realm of "can't do" and "will never be."

My oldest son is autistic, and I have been jamming my foot into closing doors all his life. From the renowned doctor who shrugged and pronounced him "retarded," to the synagogue that would not let him have a Sabbath bar mitzvah, to the local principal who was afraid to let him attend her school.

One day, however, a door swung open wide where we least expected it: sports. At age 11, Nat tried a gymnastics class run by Special Olympics. The coach was inexperienced with autism but full of energy and patience.

She worked him hard and got him to the State Games that summer. We experienced the odd sensation of feeling both proud of our son and of being able to trust others with him.

Then at fourteen, Nat learned how to swim, on the local Special Olympics swim team, and it was the first time he ever seemed to look forward to something.
"Swim races, swim races," he would say over and over, with a huge grin. Now, at eighteen, Nat is learning how to be a part of a basketball team.

Our life with Nat is often very hard, but at his sporting events it is not. There, he's just another team member playing his hardest. Nat's just one of the guys, and we are like everyone else. There is no "can't" in Special Olympics.

Whether she knew it or not back then, I think this is what Eunice Kennedy had in mind when she set up that day camp 45 years ago. Now, even though the athletes' pledge is "let me be brave," the stunning thing about Special Olympics is ... we parents don't have to be.

Commentator Susan Senator is a writer in Brookline. Her new book is called "Making Peace With Autism." You can connect with her web site and her other commentaries for WBUR via the links below. You'll also find the Special Olympics Massachusetts site there.

This program aired on November 16, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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