Breaking down the architectural and emotional barriers that isolate disabled people is the civil rights issue of the ‘80s, says Ted Kennedy Jr. He also believes public service--not politics--is the heritage of America’s most famous family name.
This Kennedy, one of the third-generation “cousins group” that also includes politicians Joseph Kennedy III and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, matter-of-factly compares disability rights to the civil rights marches of the ‘60s and women’s movement of the ‘70s.
“This movement is about a parent trying to get their son or daughter into a normal school system, a guy trying to get access to a public library so he can check out a book. It’s that kind of thing,” said Kennedy in his cramped office overlooking downtown Boston’s Public Gardens.
“The attitudinal barriers are the most stubborn ones,” he said. “In some respects they are more serious than racism and sexism, because we’re not as conscious of how we maintain them. They are a little bit harder to break down. It is hard not to feel sorry for someone who is blind, for example.”
An athletic 6-footer with thick, curly blond hair, Teddy Jr. is broad-shouldered like his senatorial father, and he is vibrant proof that a disability need not cripple one’s spirit or effectiveness.
Kennedy, now 25, was 12 when doctors found a cancerous tumor in his right leg in November, 1973. The leg was amputated as the surest way of preventing a recurrence of his cartilage cancer.
“When I lost my leg, I thought it was the end of the world. I couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life with one leg. I had these same kinds of attitudes as well.”
Avid Athlete Today
It took 18 months for Kennedy to resume an active life after his diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy. Today, he is an avid athlete who loves both sailing and skiing. He is a medal-winning member of the U.S. Handicapped Ski Team.
The battle of a boy who overcame cancer and disability with the help of his family, his friends, and his faith in God, was made into a TV movie, “The Ted Kennedy Jr. Story,” that was broadcast Nov. 24 on NBC.
It was a movie about family--not just the Kennedys. It chronicled how the family coped with his disability, his mother’s alcoholism, his parents’ marital discord.
“People can relate to what happens to their children. What family in America is not touched by a drinking or substance abuse problem in some way?” Kennedy said.
He worked with the film’s writers, and even wrote and delivered a 90-second epilogue about how the experience sensitized him to the issue he considers so paramount today.
“I was not that crazy about the movie in the first place,” he said. “I thought it was an invasion of privacy and brought up some things that were painful, quite frankly. But it will serve a purpose. It raises the whole fact that cancer does not mean death. And it will give inspiration to people who do not think they have it in them to go on.”
Kennedy’s role as a spokesman for the disabled began when he addressed the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco on the issue.
Last year, he founded Facing the Challenge, his nonprofit advocacy organization. He also signed on as consultant to a Massachusetts group promoting employment of the disabled.
Kennedy prefers the term ‘physically challenged’ over ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled.’
“Those words stress inability. The language we use is very indicative of the way we think,” he said. “Everything in life can be looked at as either a challenge or a burden.” Still, he ends up using the word “disabled” as a convenient verbal shorthand.
At Facing the Challenge, the director’s desk has the slight clutter that comes from being busy. On one wall hangs a photograph of his mother, Joan, relaxing at her piano. Nearby, a People magazine cover documents the trip Kennedy and his sister Kara made with their father, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to Ethiopia at the height of the African famine.
As he moves about the two-room office, his limp is barely noticeable.
‘Disability Very Slight’
“My disability is very slight in comparison with most people with whom I work,” Kennedy says. “No matter what disability it is--amputation, paraplegia, epilepsy or mental retardation--I think there are some common threads.
“What binds people together is this misconception of pity, the fear, the uneasiness that people have and display when they come in contact with somebody with a disability.
“Disabilities frighten many people. It is a little more difficult to break these down, but it is changing,” Kennedy said. “With the legislation that came out of the ‘70s and these architectural barriers slowly being eliminated, disabled people are becoming more visible in our society. As they become more visible, others will learn to look at people’s abilities and not just limitations.”
In a family where the men have been pulled toward politics--as congressmen, senators, Presidents and would-be Presidents--Teddy Jr. does not rule out a political future. For now, his activism runs along the lines of two aunts.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver started the Special Olympics in the early 1960s, which now is the fastest-growing sports program in the world. About 10 years ago, Jean Kennedy Smith started Very Special Arts, a program designed to bring creative arts into the lives of people with disabilities.
“I don’t really believe in that ‘torch-passing’ stuff that there is a special Kennedy responsibility. We are all kind of taught to be involved in things,” Teddy Jr said. “I’m very proud of my family heritage.
“It makes you have to try a little harder because people are always expecting a lot out of you. There are some expectations. I’m a competitive person, but not with other people. I’m competitive with myself. I try not to let other people’s ideas dictate what I do.”
Kennedy fidgets with a tape dispenser on his desk. “I prefer to draw attention to a certain issue of the time, not to sit down and do interviews,” he explains.