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Shriver Finds Wisdom Among The Intellectually Disabled


Wisdom surrounds us. We just sometimes look for it in the wrong places. Timothy Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, has written a new book in which he finds wisdom, insight, purpose and fun within people who are often overlooked and undervalued - people with intellectual disabilities. His new book, "Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most" and Timothy P. Shriver joins in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Let me begin by getting you to talk about a group of people who were at the Special Olympic World Games in 1995. They showed a photographer something new with a camera.

SHRIVER: Yeah, you know, in Special Olympics we have big events just like the other guys and on this particular occasion, the president of the United States came for the first time in history.

SIMON: This was Bill Clinton.

SHRIVER: Bill Clinton arrived and one of the professional photographers saw a group of Special Olympics athletes and noticed that they'd each had their little single-use cameras that they'd been given and they were trying to get a picture of the president, only they all had their cameras backwards. And he said to them, you know, you have to turn your camera around and then you look through the viewfinder and you click the button and you'll get a picture of the president way up high and the athlete, one of them turned to him and said, oh thank you so much, he said, but if you look through the viewfinder backwards it works just like binoculars and you can see the president perfectly clearly.

And I love the story, Scott because that photographer was well-intentioned, but boy, were appearances deceiving.

SIMON: Before there was the Special Olympics, there was what you called Camp Shriver started by your mother at your house. Tell us about those days, how it influenced you.

SHRIVER: Well, I think the thing to remember is that really throughout the 20th century people with intellectual disabilities were very severely stigmatized and in that same environment, my mother - whose brother ended up becoming president of the United States - had a sister with an intellectual disability and her family, like every other family really in that time struggled with this tension between hiding their child, fixing their child and loving their child. My mother ended up taking the last end of that spectrum. The shame and the hiding produced painful moments for Rosemary in her life, but my mother ultimately persevered enough to say to the president once he was elected, it's time for a change in the country and in their own backyard said, I'm not just going to talk about it and do policy, but let's get children out of these institutions to learn to swim and ride ponies and play kickball and do arts and crafts - and that was my backyard at the age of 4 and 5 and 6 years old. A hundred children coming on school buses from places I couldn't have imagined at that young age, places of real horror, in retrospect, but they came into my backyard as children who wanted to play and so my first exposure to disability was in the context of play, fun.

SIMON: Let me try and draw you out a bit on talking about your Aunt Rosemary. She is a lot - the most I've ever read about her in the book so I don't have to tell you she is often a footnote in history books, but she was a real presence in your life.

SHRIVER: By the time I came along, Rosemary was, if you will, brought back to life. My mother insisted that she visit us. She didn't have a lot of words but she could walk and move around. She was a good swimmer. She would sit at the dinner table with us. She came into our house, the same house in which senators and politicians would come for dinners or working sessions on public policy questions, but she came in having done none of that. You know, she didn't have to earn her way into our house and I thought in retrospect and as I watched growing up as a little boy, I realized that she had something very different than anyone else. She gave love freely. I didn't have to get an A at school. I didn't have to perform well at the dinner table to get her attention and vice versa. We were able to love her freely without having her earn it.

SIMON: Several times in the book I'm struck by parents of children with intellectual disabilities who say to you and to each other, we're not cursed...


SIMON: ...This child is not a problem to be solved in our life.

SHRIVER: Yeah. I had a mom say to me the other day - you know, she has three sons. Two of them are bankers, one lives in New York and one lives in Chicago and one has a very severe intellectual challenge and lives at home and is completely in her care. And she says, you know, whenever I describe my three sons, I described the first one at the big investment banking firm in New York and the other one in Chicago and then I describe my son who lives with me at home, and people always say to me, I'm sorry.

And she said, your job is to tell people to stop saying that about my son.

SIMON: You close your book and begin to think, why do we use the term disabilities?

SHRIVER: You know, I think we'll look back and people will read what we've written in these days and listen to talks like this and they'll hear us say disability and they'll cringe. We are so limited in our understanding of ability still. I mean, the idea of intellectual disability comes from the construct that intellect is one-dimensional. We already know that there are multiple intelligences, we just haven't discovered that many of them. Maybe we know about eight or 10 or 12, but my guess is there are a thousand so I love the idea of thinking of a world of different abilities - I use the word diffabilities, some folks don't like it, but I think it invites us to rethink.

SIMON: I tried it. Spell Check won't accept it.

SHRIVER: Spell Check doesn't accept it. I know, my editor tried to correct it many times in the book. I said, please - just trust me, leave it in. I think the horizon of finding what matters most will impart, for all of us, lead to the discovery of a great, great array of gifts among the human family and a much bigger appreciation for the gifts that different kinds of people bring.

SIMON: Timothy Shriver. He's chairman of the Special Olympics and his new book is "Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most." Thanks so much for being with us.

SHRIVER: It's been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.