Serving the underserved

60 years to the day after US President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it is opportune to remember his unwavering commitment to serve the underserved, including persons with disabilities.

As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s tragic assassination today, it’s essential to remember not only the charismatic leader he was but also his profound impact on the rights and well-being of people with disabilities.

JFK’s family, particularly his sister Rosemary Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Teddy Kennedy, played a crucial role in advocating for the rights and dignity of individuals with disabilities.

The hidden Kennedy

Rosemary Kennedy, the eldest daughter of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, faced a life of unique challenges. Born with intellectual disabilities, Rosemary’s life was marked by a lack of understanding and support for her condition.

Rosemary Kennedy

In a time when people with disabilities were often hidden from the public eye, Rosemary’s existence remained largely concealed from the public. However, her siblings love for her was unwavering.

Despite the limitations of her time, Rosemary’s condition did not deter her from trying to lead a fulfilling life. She attended school and participated in various activities, but her father, afraid she was a threat to his ambitions, decided to take more drastic measures as she reached adulthood. At the age of 23, in 1941, he took her to get a lobotomy, a procedure intended to alleviate her mood swings and violent outbursts, but that tragically left her incapacitated.

It was this heartbreaking experience with Rosemary that deeply affected JFK and led to his commitment to championing the rights of people with disabilities.

Pioneering efforts

John F. Kennedy’s commitment to people with disabilities began long before he became President of the United States. As a young senator from Massachusetts, he actively worked to improve the lives of people with disabilities by supporting legislative initiatives that aimed to enhance their rights and opportunities.

In 1955, Senator Kennedy introduced the first piece of legislation aimed at helping individuals with disabilities, known as the Maternal and Child Health and Cerebral Palsy Amendments of 1955. This act marked the beginning of a new era in disability advocacy. It sought to provide medical, educational, and vocational assistance to individuals with cerebral palsy, including research funding, with the goal of improving their quality of life.

This groundbreaking legislation laid the foundation for future initiatives and led to a significant shift in societal perceptions of individuals with disabilities. It demonstrated that people with disabilities deserved recognition, support, and the opportunity to lead fulfilling lives.

The work goes on, the cause endures

JFK’s commitment to the cause of people with disabilities did not end with his tragic assassination in 1963. His brothers, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward “Teddy” Kennedy, carried on his legacy and furthered the advocacy for the rights of people with disabilities.

Bobby Kennedy, as Attorney General in his brother’s administration, continued to work on disability issues, and his compassion for the disadvantaged was evident in his approach to policymaking. His efforts laid the groundwork for the eventual passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, marking a historic step toward equal rights for all Americans.

Robert F. Kennedy

Ted Kennedy, the youngest of the Kennedy brothers, became a prominent advocate for people with disabilities throughout his long and distinguished career in the US Senate. His dedication to the cause culminated in the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975. These legislations provided crucial protections and support for individuals with disabilities, ensuring that they could access education and employment opportunities.

Ted Kennedy

Ted Kennedy’s enduring legacy includes his pivotal role in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which remains one of the most significant pieces of disability rights legislation in U.S. history. The ADA prohibited discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various areas of public life, including employment, transportation, and public accommodations.

Today, we honour the Kennedy family’s legacy by continuing to strive for a more inclusive and equitable society, where individuals with disabilities are recognised, supported, and provided with the opportunities they deserve. JFK’s compassion and the advocacy work of his family serve as a reminder of the enduring power of empathy and commitment to making the world a better place for all.

Main photo credit: Diamond Images/Getty Images

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