Frontline Initiative John F. Kennedy Jr. Tribute

John F. Kennedy, Jr. Lighting the Way for DSPs

Writing this brief tribute to John F. Kennedy, Jr. was more than a bit daunting. Although I had met John and served on the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation (PCMR) with him, I did not really know him. In fact, I cannot even begin to imagine what it was like to be John F. Kennedy, Jr., except to believe his joyful self-assessment that its benefits greatly exceeded its annoyances. John’s sense of being blessed fostered greatly his ability to give so much, because he felt and expressed a personal sense of obligation to try to repay some measure of what he felt he had received. It was fortunate, but not surprising, that among his involvements was that of contributing to the social movement that championed the rights and opportunities of persons with intellectual disabilities to enjoy full and respected membership in the communities of their birth.

It is not surprising that John made a commitment to this movement because so much of it is a direct legacy of his own family. His father, President John F. Kennedy, established the first meaningful federal government commitment to the well-being of people with intellectual disabilities. His uncle, Senator Robert Kennedy, became the nation’s conscience in bringing public attention to the terrible circumstances of America’s institutional treatment of people with intellectual disabilities. His uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy, has played a visible and instrumental role in virtually all major legislation in education, health, long-term care, and employment and rehabilitation affecting persons with intellectual and other disabilities over the past quarter century. His aunt, Patricia Kennedy Smith, has contributed to making visual and performing arts an important part of educational and leisure opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities through Very Special Arts. Another aunt, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and the whole Shriver family, have contributed immeasurably to enhanced public awareness of the potential of people with intellectual disabilities in founding and building of the enormous and amazing International Special Olympics movement. John’s cousins, with assistance from the family foundation, have also established new initiatives to improve the developmental, social, and economic lives of people with intellectual disabilities. 

No family in America is better or more rightly identified with the cause of opportunity, accomplishment, and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities than the Kennedys. That was his family legacy, but John also embraced it as his birthright. He gladly accepted his open opportunity to continue and extend the highly valuable commitments of his family, but he chose to do so in a unique and important new way.