By Lybi Ma, published on July 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 13, 2012
The word "success" comes readily to mind when you think of Maria Shriver. Granted, she is a princess of Camelot, but her fame has not come unearned. As a journalist, she worked her way up to becoming an award-winning newscaster on NBC's Dateline; as an author, she has penned a parade of best-selling books, including one about death. And let's not forget her personal achievements: She is a doting mother of four and the wife of California governor and action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When we met at a Santa Monica cafe near her home, she breezed in with absolutely no airs. She is, in fact, known for her down-to-earth nature. Her unaffected tone makes her fame all the more palpable. Yet success is a side issue. What matters most is something more meaningful, something that has been hammered into her head since day one: making a difference.
Her book, What's Wrong With Timmy?, is a testament to this. The best seller—her third—is a children's book about a chance meeting between a little girl and boy. The boy is afflicted with mental retardation (MR), and inevitably, the girl asks her mother why he is different. This simple question opens the door to what it means to be disabled, allowing commonly asked questions to be answered and unfounded fears to be allayed.
Shriver opted to write a children's book because she wanted to foster dialogue between kids and adults. She hopes the book will open discussion about our differences in general, whether racial, mental, physical or sexual. "Individuals with disabilities add to our understanding of differences," says Shriver.
What's Wrong With Timmy? is an ode to Maria's mother, Eunice Shriver—a woman who has dedicated her life to the developmentally disabled. Much of Eunice's drive comes from the fact that her sister, Rosemary, is mentally disabled. And, as Maria recounts, Aunt Rosemary has always been included in family life and not hidden away in an institution. So it's no surprise that Eunice started a summer day camp for the mentally retarded in the back yard of the family's Maryland home nearly half a century ago.
That little camp—now the Special Olympics—serves some 1 million disabled individuals in 160 countries around the world. Recently, Shriver and her husband traveled to far-off regions including South Africa and China, visiting orphanages, institutions, schools and government officials to spread the word that families with disabilities need to be acknowledged. The Special Olympics has already done much of this acknowledging. Schwarzenegger, the organization's roving ambassador, led the delegation to South Africa.
The organization is planning additional tours, including one to South America. "We have a huge movement throughout Spanish-speaking countries," says Shriver. "But there is very little information in these regions." To help mitigate this challenge, she had her book translated into Spanish.
Maria is not the only Shriver sibling committed to the betterment of the disabled. Her brothers Timothy and Anthony are both active, as well. Timothy is president and CEO of Special Olympics, and Anthony is head of its sister organization, Best Buddies International (BBI). He formed BBI in 1989 with the help of college-age volunteers. Its mission: to help provide the mentally retarded with opportunities for one-on-one friendships and integrated employment.
BBI has touched the lives of some 175,000 individuals in the United States, Canada, Egypt and Greece (with other regions to come). Anthony saw the tremendous volunteer potential among college students. He himself has a success story that is personally relevant. His buddy of 14 years, who is disabled, holds down two jobs, is married and has a young daughter. "He even ran for elected office and won," exclaims Anthony. "People with disabilities can be successful and accomplished."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 17 percent of children under age 18 have a developmental disability. And K. Charlie Lakin, of the University of Minnesota, reports that children with intellectual disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty than other children. Adding to this alarming statistic is the fact that only 30 percent of people with developmental disabilities receive the specialty care they require, according to former Surgeon General David Satcher's conference on health disparities and mental retardation. That reality is made even more frightening by the data indicating that people with mental retardation are at increased risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, mental illness and a host of other health problems.
Satcher knew quite well that more had to be done before leaving office; he had mapped out several methods to help the mentally disabled, such as developing community-based health systems and protecting the legal rights of people with MR. And Congress is reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees the developmentally disabled the right to free public education.
Adrian Sandler, chair of the Committee on Children with Disabilities at the American Academy of Pediatrics, notes that "the old model of having these kids in separate schools is a thing of the past. Increasingly, we see kids with disabilities in regular education settings, and for the most part this works fairly well."
Public school systems have been including children with disabilities in general-education classrooms for some time. Yet this well-intentioned effort, called the inclusion movement, needs improvement, according to Shriver. She feels that there may have been discussion among government leaders and school officials about inclusion, but no one talked to the nondisabled community, so the general public is, in effect, frightfully unfamiliar with disabled individuals and their needs.
"We can't throw students with disabilities into the classroom and not tell the public about it," says Shriver. "The inclusion movement has much to learn to improve itself." She feels it's an issue that has been avoided and that communication between all parties is critical.
Sandler, who works with children with spina bifida (SB), suggests that disabled children in inclusionary settings talk with their nondisabled peers. Talking about what it means to have SB and how it affects them helps all parties immensely. "We encourage these children to share in a show-and-tell way," he says. "This helps knock down some of the barriers that arise when things are shrouded in mystery."
This very notion of unfamiliarity is exactly the reason Shriver wrote What's Wrong With Timmy? She hopes it will provoke discussion and open the door to understanding the needs of both the disabled and the nondisabled. Some parents of the nondisabled, for example, worry that all attention will go to the child with special needs and others will be neglected; while some parents of the disabled feel that their children gain more from special education.
In the end, engaging in dialogue will give us a better handle on our confusion and fears. "We need to tackle these difficult subjects and break down walls," Shriver says. "That way, we can be open-minded and deal with our prejudices as best we can and fight for inclusion in all our lives at every level."
Additional reporting by Elena Donovan