Fifty years of reform

An important milestone occurred last week in the history of how our nation treats people with intellectual disabilities. Fifty years ago, on Feb. 5, 1963, President John Kennedy issued a “Special Message to the Congress on Mental Illness and Mental Retardation.”

President Kennedy signs the Maternal and Child Health and Mental Retardation Planning Amendments of 1963 and hands signing pen to Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

President Kennedy signs the Maternal and Child Health and Mental Retardation Planning Amendments of 1963 and hands signing pen to Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

In it, he made several recommendations regarding changes he felt were necessary in the treatment of people with mental illnesses. He also urged congressional action on many of the 97 recommendations issued by his President’s Panel on Mental Retardation.

This panel was appointed shortly after Kennedy was inaugurated and after it was revealed that he had a sister, Rosemary Kennedy, who had a disability.

Combating ‘mental retardation’

In this historic 1963 message, President Kennedy announced a “National Program to Combat Mental Retardation.” Many cases of “mental retardation,” he said, are caused by inadequate health care for expectant mothers and young children. To remedy this problem, the president proposed a greater emphasis on maternity care, especially for women in low income areas, and on infant health care.

He also called for an increase in community services and a move away from the use of “outmoded,” “distant custodial institutions.”

Eight months later, President Kennedy signed legislation that would put into place many of the recommendations he had made. A second piece of legislation, enacted shortly before the president’s death in November 1963, provided funding for research centers that would study the causes of intellectual disabilities. Also included was increased funding for community-based care.

The report card

At that time, more than 175,000 individuals with intellectual disabilities were housed in large, state-run residential facilities – most of them in remote, rural locations.  It would take about six years for that population total to decline, but it has done so annually ever since.

Today, around 29,000 individuals reside in these types of institutional settings. A total of 12 states and the District of Columbia no longer operate large residential institutions.

According to the JFK Library, “President Kennedy and his family forever changed public attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities. Their influence on related policies and programs can still be seen today.”

In the 20 years after President Kennedy’s administration, Congress passed 116 pieces of legislation providing support for people with intellectual disabilities and their families.

We’re not done yet

Still, much remains to be done. In a monograph titled “Honoring Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s Legacy in Intellectual Disability,” David Braddock of the Coleman Institute at the University of Colorado pointed out that thousands of people remain on waiting lists for community services.

Family support services are sadly lacking nationwide and many students with intellectual disabilities are still educated in separate facilities.

But an enormous amount has been accomplished. We who care about and work with people with disabilities owe a great deal of gratitude to President Kennedy, Eunice Shriver and the Kennedy family for all they have done in this arena.

Making Best Buddies

Nicole Sonnier
Best Buddies

After writing in my last post about Best Buddies, I asked Nicole Sonnier, Texas state director, to tell us more about this wonderful organization.

What is the purpose of Best Buddies?

Our mission is to provide long-lasting relationships between people who have intellectual disabilities and those who do not.

How did Best Buddies get started?

The organization was started by Anthony Kennedy Shriver, son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics. The Kennedys, of course, have a long history of working with people who have intellectual disabilities. Anthony grew up being very involved in Special Olympics and he observed the special friendships that occurred during the games. He thought about the impact of year-round friendships and how they would make a difference in the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

When he was a student in college at Georgetown he got a bunch of his friends together and they went and visited institutions. He told his friends he was sure they had a lot in common with the residents of those institutions. They took the residents out to movies and baseball games. They made actual true friendships. A lot of those friendships are still in existence today. After college, Anthony went nationwide to other colleges and high schools and started Best Buddies chapters and today, there are more than 1500 Best Buddy chapters across the United States and we’ve expanded to 18 countries.

How does Best Buddies work?

The Buddies are the students who have the intellectual disabilities. Typical students are called Peer Buddies. We match them according to their interests. We have a match party every year at the beginning of the school year. There are officers for that chapter and they talk about what the chapter is going to do as a group and they talk about what the requirements are for members. They must have an activity together one- to-one at least once a week – that can be sitting together at lunch or going to the movies and they have to spend time with their Buddy even outside the school. We want it to be something that’s long-term.

Can you talk about inclusion and how important that is to the Best Buddies mission?

Our mission is of course inclusion. We have found that in so many schools now we actually see the kids in the special ed classes in a separate wing. The special ed kids come in through a separate door and the other kids never see them. And so now, because of Best Buddies, those kids are no longer kept isolated. They are actually out in the commons area and they are mingling with their Peer Buddies in the lunchroom and at school dances. It’s really been great for the typical students to see the abilities of the students that are special ed students. And it’s great for the special ed students so they can have friendships with people other than their caregivers and parents and teachers.

The ultimate goal of Best Buddies is total inclusion – social inclusion and educational inclusion. To expose the public to individuals, children and adults, to expose them to the world so people can stop seeing them as individuals with disabilities and see them as people who have a lot to contribute.

Out of this kind of inclusion, we’re hoping many of our students will become long-term advocates. When those students grow up, they might grow up to form a company that hires people with intellectual disabilities.