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An account of mental retardation through the eyes of the Kennedy Family

The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation

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Edward Shorter

"A unique and compulsively readable book by a distinguished social historian and historian of medicine. Through his access to the records of the Kennedy Foundation, Shorter illuminates the Kennedy Family's philanthropic interests in a way that no one has done before, despite all that has been written on nearly all aspects of the Kennedys. And he tells us a great deal about America's public and private responses to mental retardation. This book deserves the attention of political historians, historians of disability, philanthropy and medicine, and the general public alike. It represents a singular and quite impressive achievement."
Edward Berkowitz, Chair, Department of History, George Washington University, and author of Disabled Policy: America's Programs for the Handicapped

According to Edward Shorter, just forty years ago the institutions housing people with mental retardation (MR) had become a national scandal. The mentally retarded who lived at home were largely isolated and a source of family shame. Although some social stigma still attaches to the people with developmental disabilities (a range of conditions including what until recently was called mental retardation), they now actively participate in our society and are entitled by law to educational, social, and medical services. The immense improvement in their daily lives and life chances came about in no small part because affected families mobilized for change but also because the Kennedy family made mental retardation its single great cause.

Long a generous benefactor of MR-related organizations, Joseph P. Kennedy made MR the special charitable interest of the family foundation he set up in the 1950s. Although he gave all of his children official roles, he involved his daughter Eunice in performing its actual work—identifying appropriate recipients of awards and organizing the foundation's activities. With unique access to family and foundation papers, Shorter brings to light the Kennedy family's strong commitment to public service, showing that Rose and Joe taught their children by precept and example that their wealth and status obligated them to perform good works. Their parents expected each of them to apply their considerable energies to making a difference.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver took up that charge and focused her organizational and rhetorical talents on putting MR on the federal policy agenda. As a sister of the President of the United States, she had access to the most powerful people in the country and drew their attention to the desperate situation of families affected by mental retardation. Her efforts made an enormous difference, resulting in unprecedented public attention to MR and new approaches to coordinating medical and social services. Along with her husband, R. Sargent Shriver, she made the Special Olympics a international, annual event in order to encourage people with mental retardation to develop their skills and discover the joy of achievement. She emerges from these pages as a remarkable and dedicated advocate for people with developmental disabilities.

Shorter's account of mental retardation presents an unfamiliar view of the Kennedy family and adds a significant chapter to the history of disability in this country.

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Excerpt

Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 (pdf).

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Reviews

"Marshaling an impressive array of organizational records and archival sources, including Kennedy family records never before seen by historians, Edward Shorter presents the intriguing story of how one family truly made a difference in the struggle to educate Americans and redirect our research agenda regarding Mental Retardation.

"A lively, wonderfully engaging account of the momentous contributions of Eunice Kennedy Shriver to the Mental Retardation movement, the book is also a deserved tribute to the families of the mentally retarded. Moreover, Shorter details the chilling history of how the treatment and perception of the mentally retarded only recently evolved from the barbarisms to commonly practiced in prior decades. Shorter's unique professional perspective adds cachet to the deft sensitivity with which he tells this compelling story. A fascinating study, it will resonate with many audiences."
James W. Hilty, Professor of History, Temple University, and author of Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector (Temple)

"Shorter has given us an excellent, critical study of the impact of the Kennedy family on the care of the retarded. It is an important scholarly contribution to the historical literature on mental retardation."
Journal of History of the Behavioral Sciences

"...provides insight into a time when society began to question the orthodoxy of the notion that persons with retardation could not learn and had to be institutionalized. ...Shorter reminds us that, at least in the case of mental retardation policy, the legacy of the [Kennedys] remains solid and enduring."
ISIS

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Contents

Preface
1. Useless People
2. Joe Senior
3. Eunice and Sarge
4. Camelot
5. Special Olympics
6. Power
7. Image
8. Dynasty
Postscript
Notes
Index

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About the Author(s)

Edward Shorter is a Professor at the University of Toronto where he holds the Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine. He is the author of A History of Psychiatry from the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac, as well as many other books in the fields of history and medicine.

Subject Categories

American Studies
Disability Studies

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