Intellectual Disability

Intellectual Disability

Droel_pictureBill Droel

It all started here in Chicago. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke was once upon a time only 24-years old when, as a gym instructor for the Chicago Park District, she was selected to organize an event for intellectually disabled people. Burke had no expertise with the special needs population. But the Kennedy Foundation awarded the CPD and Burke a small grant. Thus in July 1968 “on the field and in the largely empty stands of Soldier Field,” writes Tim Shriver in his inspiring book, Fully Alive (Farrar, Straus, 2014), Chicago became the site for the first “national athletic competition for people with intellectual disabilities.” The immensely popular Special Olympics is now, of course, well-known. It has international branches and many related programs and competitions.

At the time Burke and others only suspected what is now common sense: That physical activity increases a person’s ability to learn and to function in other settings. This is generally true for all of us, but this insight along with others changed how the disabled are regarded.

Shriver profiles several remarkable people and even suggests that the intellectually disabled can change society—not only spiritually, but even politically. I had to read a section and then put the book down for at least a couple hours; the story compels that type of reflection.

Shriver keeps it real. Treveon Wimberly, Shriver tells us, cannot talk in a standard language. He gestures and makes sounds to express himself. Wimberly, who is mobile only with a wheelchair, tells his high school friend that he wants to walk across the stage at graduation. The two boys “committed to a daily routine of exercises and therapies,” every single day for one year. Now the movie version ends with Wimberly strutting his stuff at graduation and the friend throwing the wheelchair in the school dumpster. But Fully Alive keeps it real: Using a walker, Wimberly takes only three steps on the stage. The crowd erupts and I had to put the book down.

Shriver’s aunt, Rosemary Kennedy (1918-2005), was intellectually disabled. He again tells it honestly. Initially, Rosemary’s parents and siblings nobly included her in family life. Her father, however, trusted in a now discredited procedure. Rosemary was damaged and then sent to a facility. Rosemary’s father arranged care for her thereafter, but never visited. Her siblings didn’t know much. Plus, as Shriver explores, they were in denial about her.
Shriver’s mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921-2009), gradually but dramatically redeems the situation. She directs money from the family foundation to research and treatment for mental health; she lobbies her brother, President John Kennedy (1917-1963), on disability legislation; and with the support of her husband Sarge (1915-2001), with Burke and with others she founds the Special Olympics (

Fully Alive is not just a feel good book—if it is that at all. Shriver repeatedly asks of us, as he asks of himself: “What should we do with our lives?” In fits and starts he discovers that the answer comes from finding one’s soul and giving energy and time to the ill, the young, the lost and the poor. This is the way to have power and lots of fun.

The way of life that Shriver discovered contrasts with the common way of living. Daniel Thompson, one of Shriver’s young adult disabled friends who dies, imagines putting the contrast this way to a well-known but clownish business executive and so-called reality TV star who has a silly hairstyle: “You may have a life that you think is good and stylish. [But] I want you to think of being in a dark, dark space… That’s what living with disabilities is like. And then all of a sudden, you wake up and you got mail and you got a friend and you got people who want to play with you. Then life gets full. [So Mr. Executive,] I feel you should donate and help… You’ll feel happier and you could even get a tax deduction too.”
When Eunice Shriver died, her brother Senator Ted Kennedy (1932-2009), who died two weeks later, remarked that she among all the Kennedy siblings did the most for society. Tim Shriver plausibly argues that Rosemary, in turning her siblings’ souls toward the less fortunate, deserves that distinction.

Shriver’s recommended way of empowerment is not sugar-coated. Yes, there are poignant incidents, like with a runner at that first Special Olympics in Soldier Field, who having earnestly trained, pulls away and with a burst of exhilaration closes in on the finish line. And then he stops; turns around; and runs back to comfort a friend who has fallen. “Who won that race,” Shriver asks?

But don’t get the wrong impression. Fully Alive keeps it real. On another occasion Shriver himself is in the infield for a Special Softball game. A liner knocks him over and splits his lip wide open. The fans are quite concerned, but not the Special Batter. He hovers over the dazed Shriver, taunting him: “You heard me. We’re gonna win States this year and you ain’t got no chance.”

Droel serves on the board of St. Coletta of Illinois, the sister facility to the one in Wisconsin where Rosemary Kennedy lived for many years with the exemplary care of Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi.