Vanderbilt Kennedy Center

Eunice Kennedy Shriver

Eunice Kennedy Shriver

The Fulfillment of a Vision

Updated on 8/19/2009 1:11:53 PM.

By: Eunice Kennedy Shriver

On the Occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the Kennedy Center (Kennedy Center News, September/October 1996)

Many men have great dreams. Only great men have dreams that are fulfilled by their own actions. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one such man, and certainly John F. Kennedy was another. President Kennedy had a vision for helping the millions of families affected by our most common disability—mental retardation. As he said in a news conference on October 11, 1961:

This condition strikes those least able to protect themselves from it . . . . At one time, there was practically no effective program in the field of mental retardation. Whenever possible the children were committed to institutions. They were segregated from normal society and forgotten except by members of their family.  . . . They suffered from lack of public understanding and they suffered from lack of funds.,

Mental retardation was not on the nation’s agenda when Kennedy became president. For the majority of Americans, it held little interest. He regarded it as an issue of great importance and believed that the way America treated its citizens was a disgrace.

President Kennedy’s first step toward correcting this state of affairs was the creation of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 1962 with responsibility to investigate, on a meaningful scale, typical and atypical child development, in particular mental retardation. He was especially interested in prenatal care and how research could help mothers have healthy babies. Hundreds of millions of research dollars have flowed for this purpose since then.

Next came the creation of the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation. As he had noted earlier, “although we have made great strides in the battle against disease, we as a nation have too long postponed an intensive search for solutions to the problems of the mentally retarded. That failure should be corrected.” (October 11, 1961).

Biological scientists of Nobel standing—Joshua Lederberg and Wendell Stanley—were joined by behavioral and educational scientists of equal stature—Lloyd Dunn and Nicholas Hobbs of Peabody College—as Panel members. The report of the President’s Panel recommended the establishment and support of Mental Retardation Research Centers. Their goal would be to solve the many problems of mental retardation by bringing together scientists from many disciplines to address the causes, manifestations, and cures or amelioration of mental retardation.

On October 31, 1963, President Kennedy signed legislation to construct a national network of Mental Retardation Research Centers. Peabody College’s John F. Kennedy Center was a model in its emphasis on research in education, both to improve practice and to determine the effectiveness of educational interventions. Peabody College was considered the world leader in this arena, and President Kennedy was eager to have the best and the brightest attacking the problems of children with mental retardation.

The John F. Kennedy Center at Peabody College has been unique among the twelve original Mental Retardation Research Centers in its emphasis on the behavioral, social, and educational sciences, especially special education, and in its training of young researchers in the behavioral sciences for careers in mental retardation research, a program dating back to 1955. Indeed, Head Start had its origin from a site visit to Peabody College that Sargent Shriver and I made where we viewed first-hand the seminal work of Susan Gray and Nicholas Hobbs on early intervention involving children and parents. Dr. Gray worked hard to show families what was possible and to give them hope that their children could be helped and educated.

The merger of Peabody College with Vanderbilt University in 1979 was the culmination of years of collaboration that linked behavior with biology but on a limited scale. Now, basic neurobiologists and clinical neurologists and pediatricians work hand in hand with psychologists and educators to prevent or ameliorate problems like self-injury of children with severe mental retardation, which are so devastating to families. Neuropharmacology, neurochemistry, molecular biology, developmental psychology, and special education make up only a fraction of the disciplines working as teams to carry out research on mental retardation.

Truly, the vision of President Kennedy in the 1950s has helped make possible the gains that children and adult with mental retardation and their families enjoy today. We cannot, however, rest on our collective laurels. I know that the Center will continue its efforts to improve the lives of persons with mental retardation and their families.

President Kennedy’s own words convey best what the Kennedy Center has focused on for the past 30 years:

I don’t think as a country, nationally, and, as a matter of fact, I don’t think privately we have done enough on research into the causes of mental retardation. And while a good deal of effort is being expended in this country for the care of these children, I do think it is most important that we devote special effort in the coming months and years to research in the causes of it.  –February 8, 1961, Press conference [television]

This administration’s proposal for mental health and mental retardation stress rehabilitation instead of isolation, prevention instead of detention, and comprehensive community centers instead of old-fashioned state asylums. –April 19, 1963, Remarks to newspaper editors

For the first time, parents and children will have available comprehensive facilities to diagnose and either cure or treat mental retardation. For the first time, there will be research centers capable for putting together teams of experts working in many different fields.  –October 11, 1961, at the signing of the Mental Retardation Facilities and Mental Health Centers Construction Act (P.L. 88-164)

I congratulate the Kennedy Center for its accomplishments. I am certain that the next 30 years will be equally productive and impressive.

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