Maria Shriver is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist and producer and a
Nearly half of our country continues to hold onto outdated views laced with fear and
Thanks to my mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s fierce will, enormous vision, and
relentless drive, I grew up believing that people with intellectual disabilities—like her
sister Rosemary—were not to be feared or warehoused in institutions. I grew up
hearing how these people and their families struggled in isolation. I grew up seeing my
mother fight for their civil rights—their rights to an education and their human rights to
be seen as valuable and important members of our larger global family. I grew up
being told, and being shown, that people with intellectual disabilities were capable and
able beings who could not only out-perform my siblings and our friends in athletic
competition, but could also teach us lessons in family unity, perseverance, courage,
We have come a long way since my mother’s backyard summer camp evolved into the
global movement now known as the Special Olympics. But we still have a long way to go.
In the just-published Shriver Report Snapshot: Insight into Intellectual Disabilities in the
21st Century, we learned that while the institutions that warehoused people in the 60s
and 70s have closed, nearly half of our country’s adult population still say they don’t
know a single person with intellectual disability, and a stunning 1 in 5 don’t even know
what an intellectual disability is.
As the U.S. prepares to welcome 6,500 athletes and coaches from 165 countries to Los
Angeles this weekend to compete in 25 sports at the Special Olympics World Games
and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the historic Americans with Disabilities Act, these
facts should ignite us all to “Change the Game.”
How do we do that? Well, the Shriver Report Snapshot reveals that the more than half of
Americans who do know someone with intellectual disability, who have had a personal
experience, can show us the way. They report progressive attitudes and high levels of
empathy when it comes to educating people with intellectual disabilities, when it comes to
where they should work, and whom they should marry and date. They are more likely to
understand the hurtful implications the R-word (retard) has on this community, their family
members and their supporters.
These game changers, primarily millennial women, can lead the more than 40% of the
country who said they do not personally know a person with an intellectual disability. This
nearly half of our country continues to hold onto outdated views laced with fear and
I believe this is possible because we have witnessed the remarkable speed with which
Americans can change long-held attitudes. Most recently, we’ve seen our society’s rapid
evolution regarding marriage equality, and we are seeing it now on the subject of
transgender rights. We are a nation that can and does change, and we owe nothing less
to our citizens with intellectual disabilities.
I believe we will change as a nation when we find out that just more than 1 in 10
Americans say they count a person with intellectual disabilities as a friend. I believe we
will change as a nation when we find out 22% of Americans think people with intellectual
disability should not be allowed to vote. I believe we will change as a nation when you
hear the stories of so many families who say their child with intellectual disabilities is not
welcome on their school sports teams. I believe we will change our language when we
hear from people like Eddie Barbanell who talks openly of the devastating and humiliating
impact the R-Word has. I believe we will change when we hear the countless stories
families around the globe tell of the positive influence their child with intellectual disabilities
has had on the family unit.
I think this is especially important because 91% of Americans think some, most, or all
people would terminate a pregnancy or give a child up for adoption if told they would
have an intellectual disability. This is a decision based on fear of being able to handle the
situation emotionally, financially and physically. Fear and misunderstanding remain.
So this week, let these Special Olympics World Games serve as a catalyst for change.
Gather your family and turn on ESPN, which is devoting its prime-time television space to
these remarkable athletes and their stories—stories that are no less powerful and
inspiring than the stories that come out of the Olympics every four years.
Have a dialogue with your children about inclusion, acceptance, and language. If you live
in LA, come and watch. Reach out to someone you know with an intellectual disability or a
family with a child with intellectual disabilities. If you don’t know someone, as my mother
would say, go find someone. They’re here. They probably live near you. If you pass a
person on the street with intellectual disabilities, instead of averting your glance and walking
by, stop. Smile. Start a conversation. Share what you learn. These simple actions will begin
to change the game.
Then, the next time we take the pulse of this country, I’m confident those excluding and
isolating numbers will have shifted. I’m confident that we will be a better, stronger and
more compassionate country if we include and value everyone in it. #LetsChangetheGame
Tony Paulauski Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423