Eunice Kennedy Shriver honored by the College

Various speakers honored Shriver
Various speakers honored Shriver

To commemorate the memory and celebrate the legacy of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who contributed to special needs advocacy at the College and worldwide, a number of events were held on Jan. 27 surrounding the importance of reaching out to those with disabilities.

Shriver died at age 88 on August 11, 2009. She was the youngest sister of President John F. Kennedy. Her younger sister had mental disabilities.

Benjamin Rifkin, dean of the school of Culture and Society, hopes that the legacy of Eunice Kennedy Shriver will reverberate with those who attended for years to come.

“I think what I’d want students to take from the presentation is the fact that it is critically important for us to respect people who are different, and to value everyone,” he said.

Shriver had ties with the College and the Special Olympics program held annually during the summer. She visited the College in 2006. A documentary made about her visit was shown during the memorial.

Rifkin also said he was “very pleased” with the whole day.

Events began at 2 p.m. with an academic panel discussion on how to best accommodate those of different abilities.

Lorraine Allen, the regional director of the College’s New Jersey Small Business Development Center (NJSBDC), capped off the second session of the two-part panel discussion with her presentation, “Entrepreneurs with Disabilities: Creating Self-Employment as an Economic Opportunity.”

Following the academic panel discussion, the Library Auditorium hosted Sheryl Burgstahler, a visiting professor from the University of Washington in Seattle. Burgstahler, who is also the director of two disability services programs at the University of Washington, advocated the practice of Universal Design — the design of products to accommodate all people — on a college campus.

She began her lecture with a nod to the event’s inspiration.

“I’m honored to be here at an event commemorating Eunice Shriver,” Burgstahler said. “She is my personal role model. She truly embodied the idea of a leader as a public servant.”

The events continued at 7 p.m. with the Evening Celebration, a series of spoken and video presentations honoring Shriver’s legacy and extolling the far reach of her work’s impact.

Hosted by Rifkin and Richard Blumberg, associate professor of Special Education, Language and Literacy at the College, the evening featured presentations by those who had been directly or indirectly touched by the work of Shriver.

One of the speakers was Bernard Carabello, a disabilities rights advocate and former resident of Willowbrook State School, an institution for those with developmental disabilities whose abominable living conditions caused New York Senator Robert Kennedy to refer to it as a “snake pit” on his 1965 visit to the school.

Carabello was also part of the famous investigation by Geraldo Rivera, whose published exposé of the true situation at Willowbrook led to a class-action lawsuit and the school’s eventual closure. Rivera interviewed Carabello in secret on numerous occasions while he was a resident of the institution.

Other presenters were Thomas Sullivan, a member of the Board of Directors of the Special Olympics of New Jersey and a 1980 graduate of the College, and several members of the Bonner Center. Both presentations stressed the importance of making time to volunteer with those with developmental disabilities, in the vein of Shriver.

Sullivan, who worked with Shriver as a figure in the Special Olympics which Shriver founded in 1968, spoke of her diligence, compassion and extremely high standards.

“Eunice was an amazing and inspirational person. She made everyone better,” he said. “But she wasn’t easy to work with.”

He also spoke of what he felt was her inspiration for her countless humanitarian undertakings, particularly those that focused on improving the lives of those with disabilities.

“It’s about respect and human dignity,” Sullivan said. “It’s about the basic fact that we are all equal. We might be a little different in terms of our capabilities, but the fact remains, we’re all equal.”

“If we can’t treat people with disabilities with respect, there can be no respect or liberties for anyone,” Rifkin said. “We as citizens have to stand up and protect the rights of everyone in the world, and not just because it’s the right thing to do, in it of itself.”

The event was a collaborative effort between the office of Academic Affairs, the school of Culture and Society, the school of Education, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and others.