Frontline Initiative John F. Kennedy Jr. Tribute

Hands Across the Water


Marianne Taylor is an NADSP co-chair and works at member organization HSRI in Cambridge MA

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time someone stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance. —Robert Kennedy, South Africa, 1966

Perhaps Mr. John Kennedy, Jr. developed his spirit of service and idealism that has lifted up so many direct support professionals by embracing the message that continues to live in the words of his uncle, or it may have grown from the example of his family’s longstanding service to people with disabilities. Whatever the reason for his commitment and quiet action on behalf of the direct support workforce, one of Mr. Kennedy’s legacies is the creation of an international movement to advance the recognition and education of this workforce.

In August, I was privileged to attend an institute with the theme of International Perspectives on the Training of Personnel in the Disability Field. This gathering of people in New York City was organized by Bill Ebenstein, Jason Chapin and Lyda Clifton of the City University of New York (CUNY), who have been the skillful and energetic leaders assisting Mr. Kennedy in fulfilling his vision of providing direct support professionals. It was made up of many people whose lives were touched by the generosity and spirit of Mr. Kennedy, who was a co-sponsor of the institute along with the American-Ireland Fund and other groups. Lyda, Bill and Jason were close to Mr. Kennedy and deeply saddened by the recent tragedy, but chose to honor his memory by carrying forward with the conference.

The meeting opened with Bill’s reflections on the remarkable work of Mr. Kennedy in strengthening the workforce and to the bittersweet strains of an Irish ballad. Bill described Mr. Kennedy’s deep understanding of the challenges of low wages and status that confront today’s human service workforce and how he brought these issues to the national forefront in his speeches at the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) conference in 1996 and through his service to the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation (PCMR). He described the Kennedy Fellows program and, through out the two-day institute, many of the Kennedy Fellows in attendance spoke about how Mr. Kennedy knew each of them personally and about their deep sense of loss with his death.

In recent years, without diminishing his attention to national issues in direct support work, Mr. Kennedy took up the additional challenge of reaching out to people throughout the world to exchange information on workforce development and to explore models of supporting people with disabilities with particular emphasis on developing countries. The summer institute continued this work by convening delegates from the North and South of Ireland, the Caribbean nations of Haiti and Jamaica, Vietnam, and the United States to discuss each culture’s approach to training and educating personnel supporting people with disabilities.

Dr. Roy McConkey of Ulster University spoke about the Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) approach promoted by the World Health Organization. This approach focuses on building the capacity of indigenous community members and community organizations to support people with disabilities rather than temporarily infusing specialists and specialized services which are not typically sustainable over the long run in poor countries.

We learned that Vietnam has adopted the CBR model throughout the country because it is the most practical approach for its largely agricultural economy. Delegates from Haiti described the strong spirit of voluntarism and family-to-family support that is characteristic of their culture. These stories made it clear that it is naïve to presume that wealth is an essential prerequisite to quality support. Indeed, as Phil McCallion of State University of New York (SUNY) — Albany ironically described the “edifice complex” that afflicts many service agencies (the desire to measure service quality through the number of buildings and homes an agency owns), it was clear how the wealth of industrialized countries can create barriers to choice and individualization of support.

 Along with former NADSP cochair, Seth Krakauer, I spoke with meeting delegates about the goals of the NADSP and recognized the critical role that Mr. Kennedy played in launching and sustaining the Alliance. Even as we express our heartfelt sorrow to his friends and family for their loss, let us honor his leadership by committing to combine our ripples of hope into a mighty current of change for direct support professionals and people with disabilities throughout the world.