Helping the Mentally Retarded
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 6 Nov 1969, p. 91-102

Kennedy, Mrs. Joseph P., Speaker
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Item Type:
The Kennedy's family interest in working with the mentally retarded: a personal experience. Efforts to improve conditions in the field of treatment and care of the mentally retarded. Discoveries made about the condition, and some of the causes. Informing people about the dangers of contact with measles during pregnancy. The need for vaccination against measles. The establishment of workshops throughout the United States where mentally retarded may work and become accustomed to living away from home. The increase in the hiring of the mentally retarded by government and private industry. Types of jobs the retarded have done successfully. Physical fitness programmes and opportunities for play needed by mentally retarded children. The Special Olympics Programme. Appeals to the audience about how they can become involved in helping. The joys and rewards of helping.
Date of Original:
6 Nov 1969
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
NOVEMBER 6, 1969
Helping the Mentally Retarded
AN ADDRESS BY Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy
Dinner Meeting with Ladies
CHAIRMAN The President, H. Ian Macdonald


Ladies and Gentlemen, we have embarked on a rather different approach to the normal proceedings this evening in the belief that many in this room will not be fully aware of the remarkable progress that has taken place in the encouragement of the mentally retarded. There is no one who is more responsible for that progress than Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy.

However, before introducing Mrs. Kennedy and asking her to describe her thoughts and feelings, we would like you to see some films based on the Olympics for the retarded in both Canada and the United States. I am convinced that, when you have seen these films, you will be personally touched and impressed by the vision and faith of those who have guided this work--and, not the least, our gracious visitor, Mrs. Kennedy.

First, we will see a film clip based on the first official Canadian Hockey Olympics for Retarded Children, held in Toronto this spring. This film was shown recently on the Hockey Canada Network. That will be followed by a film of the first Olympics for Retarded Children held in Chicago and narrated by Mr. Rafer Johnson, the American Olympic Decathlon champion.


When a new president of the Empire Club settles down in the summer to survey the year ahead and to contemplate his responsibility for arranging thirty public meetings, he expects tribulation mixed with triumph and exultation diluted by disappointment. Let me say, however, that my feelings soared to Olympian heights one hot August afternoon as the result of a telephone call from Hyannis Port, conveying the news that Mrs. Kennedy would come to the Empire Club this evening. I cannot describe how happily I have anticipated this occasion, no more than I could begin to measure, in words, the warmth of welcome which we, who are in this room tonight, feel for you, Mrs. Kennedy.

The Empire Club is a significant institution in the life of this city and, I believe, in the affairs of this country. An empire is a supreme and wide dominion and, whereas the Club's name is derived from a political concept, it has provided a forum for public discussion and stood for the empire of thought and feeling throughout sixty-six years. This year, mingled among our political, economic and financial topics, you will find that we are seeking to explore matters of pressing human concern related to the individual, his world, and his self-fulfilment. In our empire, which genius and technology have now extended outward to the universe, we are concerned about the individual and the opportunity to be our brother's keeper.

That is the essential reason why we were so anxious to invite you, Mrs. Kennedy, to be with us tonight, and I would add not only for what you have taught us about individuality, but also for what you have done about it. The cynics and the astigmatic, whose horizons may be limited to the blue glow of a television-tube, speak of the post-Christian era and would assign all public service and human compassion to corporate or state bureaucracies. Such resignation and disinterest was parodied brilliantly by the English novelist, Evelyn Waugh, when he had one of his characters declare, rather irreverently, in mock prayer:

"Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the State my soul to keep,
And should I die before I wake,
I pray the State my soul to take."

Surely, those who are our guests at the Head Table this evening, and above all you, Mrs. Kennedy, have demonstrated a fundamental faith in the human spirit and the importance of personal concern for individual welfare. In your devoted efforts on behalf of the mentally retarded, you have constantly reminded us that it matters less what people do than what they are, and that what should really matter is the opportunity for participation and self-fulfillment.

Mrs. Kennedy, I know that you have never deviated from that belief. You and your husband have been parents to a beloved President of your great nation and an Attorney-General, each of whom served as a Senator, to be followed in turn by a third member of that great body. However, you have also given a mother's love to a much wider constituency, a constituency of children whose hopes and dreams might not otherwise have been fulfilled. Because you have lived by faith, you have taught so many of us its true meaning. In this age of instant action and early obsolescence, it is worthwhile to note how the basic strength of motherhood has endured through wars and famines, revolutions and social upheavals. That quality, that spirit, and that love continue to flourish, and you have helped to extend it to the understanding and the encouragement of those lives which were once regarded as hopeless. Surely, greatness is the capacity to derive hope and meaning from apparent hopelessness as Reinhold Niebuhr once suggested. You have helped us to understand that paradox, and to recognize a fuller meaning in the words of that lovely old German hymn:

"Now thank we all our God,
With hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
in whom His world rejoices."

By your own efforts and through the work of the Kennedy Foundation, you have provided hands, and heart, and voice in the interests of the mentally retarded.

I often like to lie on the floor with my own children, from which position the adult world takes on a Lilliputian aspect and seems to be peopled by giants. The child sees that world above and reaches out for it, while we try to make the object of his reach worthwhile. But there is another yardstick that we must teach all children and that is to measure themselves against their own capacity and to learn to use that capacity for the purpose of achieving dignity and contentment. That must surely be the goal of those who seek to help the mentally retarded.

Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me not keep you further from your guest. The story is told of George Bernard Shaw being invited to speak at a dinner in London, England. He was treated to a three-quarters of an hour introduction by the Chairman, who finally concluded by saying: "I know that we are all looking forward to Mr. Shaw's address." At that point, the great man leaped to his feet and growled: "My address is 24 Sloane Square and that's where I'm going right now." Whereupon, he stormed out of the room. Mrs. Kennedy's address is Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and I would be most distressed to suffer the fate of that other chairman.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have refrained this evening from flitting through a biographical catalogue in the conventional manner of the ritualistic introduction. I have done so, first, because Mrs. Kennedy certainly needs no introduction in Toronto where she has so many friends, but, more importantly, because Mrs. Kennedy is with us this evening to speak about her love for and dedication to the mentally retarded. And so, I have tried to dwell on her contribution rather than her curriculum vitae. However, I did begin by describing the great delight that we feel in welcoming you this evening, Mrs. Kennedy, and I do so in recognition that I could never express adequately the affection and regard which we all have for you. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce to you and welcome to the Empire Club of Canada, Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy.


Mr. Chairman, Archbishop Pocock, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is a very great pleasure and honour for me to be here tonight. As you have heard, I have come back here to Canada many, many times and always with great pleasure. As a young girl I went to Montreal with my father, who was the Mayor of Boston, and we were the guests of the Mayor of Montreal. Later we came on various skiing trips with my children and then, of course, I have spoken here on mental retardation two or three times. On one occasion I was presented with a wonderful painting of Mount Kennedy, the peak in the Canadian mountains which you named for my late son, President Kennedy. So it is a very great joy for me to be here tonight and this introduction has just overwhelmed me.

Some of you may have asked how the Kennedy family became interested in this work. The answer is a very simple one. We had nine children. Our second son, Jack, became president, and one and one half years after his birth, our daughter, Rosemary, was born who was mentally retarded. Later, we had six children perfectly normal and healthy. I make this statement very deliberately, because some mothers who have a child who is mentally retarded are fearful that the other children who follow will also be afflicted. That is not very often the case.

How different conditions now are from what they were 45 years ago when there were no special school classes, no scientists interested in retarded children, no federal, state or local programmes, when I, as a mother of a retarded child, felt helpless and frustrated and heartbroken.

With the idea of improving conditions in this field, in 1946 we established the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, named in honour of my son killed in World War II. The resources of the Foundation were to be devoted to the establishment of schools and clinics to help these youngsters. But after a few years my husband found that the number of these children was increasing so fast that we could not possibly dedicate enough schools and clinics to take care of them. So we decided to focus primarily on research. That is, to seek the causes of this affliction and to conquer it at its source, and to discover new methods of treatment and training for those for whom progress in prevention came too late. Through our efforts and the efforts of many others, wonderful success has been achieved. The facts to be emphasized are that if we make this information known to the public then the toll of mental retardation can be reduced by fully one-half today. In this field, you in the audience can help these people tremendously and it is a challenge to all of us.

For example, one of the most important discoveries has been that the nine months after conception are the most important in the child's life, and so every prospective mother should see a doctor frequently and regularly in that period. Thousands of pregnant women, in fact 30 percent of the women, do not see a doctor in this early period. They do not see a doctor until it is too late. All of you in this audience can help in this respect, because many of you come in contact with these women--and everyone can urge all pregnant women to see a doctor after conception--not after three months or six months, but immediately. For instance, pregnant women should tell their doctors and their dentists that they are pregnant before they have x-rays. Many are taking the wrong kind of drugs or they may need a drug to help them during pregnancy. There are many other precautions which must be observed.

And, after the baby is born, during the first months of his life, he should be examined by the doctor because the sooner signs of mental retardation are observed, the easier it is to rectify them.

Many of you perhaps may or may not know that old-fashioned measles can cause brain damage in children. In your country and in mine, there are thousands of children who have not been vaccinated against this common childhood illness. I understand that London, Ontario had a major mass immunization programme about two years ago, and Hamilton about a year and one-half ago. However, here in Toronto nothing has been done about protecting children from old-fashioned measles, and 5 per cent of your children are susceptible to this disease and possibly to encephalitis. I urge all of you to encourage a mass immunization programme this winter.

Another type of measles--German measles, or rubella while not considered dangerous to children, often causes retardation, blindness or deafness in an unborn child if the mother contracts it during pregnancy. This can occur when a school age child carries the virus home to his expectant mother. Neither the child nor the mother is harmed, but the fetus can be. Therefore, since school children act as carriers, they are the ones who must be vaccinated. The next epidemic of German measles is expected in 1970 or 1971. Your support of a comprehensive rubella vaccination programme can prevent this dread disease. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is for you parents to contact your doctors and your health officials and insist that they provide the vaccine. In the United States, we licensed this vaccine only 5 months ago, and already our federal government and state governments are providing it free in many schools. Our goal is to vaccinate every child between the ages of one and twelve.

My wish is to make all these facts known so that you can take the proper steps to protect your children and pregnant women in your families against the dangers of both kinds of measles. Years ago we were not conversant with these risks. Now that we are familiar with them, let us avail ourselves of this knowledge and protect these future youngsters. I personally feel that if I can save one mother and one child from the anguish and heartbreak which I endured, my efforts will have been repaid one hundredfold, and I hope you have the same reactions.

One of the most important and praiseworthy activities in this field of mental retardation is the establishment of workshops throughout the country. The retarded leave school about the age of 18 and enter these workshops which serve as stepping stones between school and jobs in the community. They work on various projects and in many cases create beautiful products.

In Florida, for example, they become interested in horticulture, and in other parts of our country they make candles and perfume. Here in Toronto, you have four workshops serving 250 retardates, and in Ontario there are 80 at present employing 1,800 retarded workers who assemble plastic toys, refinish furniture and make porcelain, print Christmas cards, among many other various duties.

In these workshops the retarded become accustomed to living away from home. They take instructions from a supervisor and learn to adjust themselves to a new environment. They and their parents derive a great sense of satisfaction because they know they are advancing towards the ultimate goal of mingling with other normal workers and earning some money.

Government as well as private industry is hiring more and more retarded in the United States. In 1962 my son, President Kennedy, had the Civil Service laws amended so that it is much easier for the retarded and the handicapped to be eligible for government work now. The very first employee was a young upholsterer who was hired by my son to work in the White House, and he is still there today.

And at President Kennedy's suggestion, the Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Douglas Dillon, hired many retardates to work in the Treasury Department. He said he had no reservations about hiring them. He found them capable, anxious to progress, and proud of what they could do. Today, over 6,000 mentally retarded are working in the United States Government.

In the Canadian government, on the contrary, however, although the civil service rule regarding the written test has been lifted and technically retarded people could work in the government, there has been little rapport between the government and this group. And so I should like to call this to your attention, in the hopes that you can facilitate their entry into government service.

Some of you may feel that other employees in your offices or your companies may object if retarded workers are brought in to perform the same tasks which they do. We have found, however, that employees have taken an almost paternal interest in the retarded worker, and do all they can to help him adjust on the job.

The retarded do not become emotional or temperamental. They are not mentally ill, but simply have a limited intelligence and a limited ability to learn. They are very stable.

At first it may take a little extra time to train them, but businessmen have agreed that in the long run it was well worthwhile because the retarded are not job hoppers; they are loyal and hardworking; they will do routine, repetitive jobs which the normal person finds monotonous and tiring. And so their assets far outweigh the small amount of extra time it may have taken to train them.

A few of the types of jobs which the retarded have done successfully are: running an elevator, sorting mail, packing cartons and running errands.

Many retarded are perfectly capable of earning a livelihood, and it is a great boon to them as well as to their parents to know they are leading self-sufficient lives. And from an economic point of view it is a great advantage to the government because to keep an individual in an institution for a lifetime now costs close to $200,000 over a period of fifty to sixty years.

And so I urge you businessmen to review jobs within your companies and it is my hope that you will find many which can be filled by retarded individuals. At present, out of the 1,800 retarded in workshops in Ontario, which I mentioned a little earlier, only 100 are graduating each year into regular employment and many more could go out if there were jobs waiting for them. If you will contact the Toronto Association for the Mentally Retarded, they will arrange to have a placement counsellor contact you. I made this same appeal to the businessmen of St. Louis and Chicago recently and I understand the response has been tremendous.

Physical fitness programmes, as well as schools, workshops, and jobs, are needed to provide the retarded with the chance to play, to exercise, to experience the companionship of other children. We know that at home many retarded do not compete because they cannot jump or throw a ball as well as their brothers or sisters or friends, and so they have no confidence in themselves. But if they are with children of their own potential in camps, or special games, and see others competing at a slower pace, they will try, and will gain confidence in themselves and eventually compete successfully. As the children improve physically, they also acquire mental and emotional stability and make greater progress in their school work.

This past June I was privileged to attend the Canadian Special Olympics in Toronto. There, more than 1,000 retarded youngsters took part in exciting games and contests. They ran, jumped, swam, played floor hockey, won medals, marched in parades and accomplished results I do not believe any of us would have dreamed possible a few short years ago. The Special Olympics programme was created by the Kennedy Foundation to test the thesis that retarded children could successfully compete in athletics.

Over the summer more than 50,000 children in the United States and Canada took part in these games. Thousands of volunteers have contributed their time and efforts to make these programmes possible. I understand that there are at least forty young peoples' groups which have been organized for mental retardation throughout Canada in the last year alone. They act as camp counsellors, raise money, baby-sit, take children and adults on outings, among many other activities. It is such a wonderful experience when the young are able to see how handicapped people endure with courage and grace the burdens life has placed upon them. It makes them more thankful for their own blessings, and gives them stronger confidence to meet their own troubles and problems which come to them throughout life. I have often quoted to my children the words of St. Luke: "Of everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required."

If you or your young people are not already personally involved, I urge you to find out more about the Special Olympics and the other programmes through the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded.

And as a parent, let me ask all of you to talk to the parents of these children, so that they may not feel alone with their problems. They are often bewildered and are wondering why they have had this cross sent to them. They are worried about what would happen to the child if they should die. So speak to parents and tell them that you are sympathetic and that you are sure their children will have an opportunity to learn and to progress, in this day and age, and become useful and happy citizens.

Try to visit a home or school or a physical fitness programme some day and watch these children work and play. If you have helped them you will feel a tug at your heart strings and you will experience a great joy because you have rescued them from environments where they were lonely and discouraged, and you have brought them to havens where they have found happiness, companionship and a wonderful new way of life.

Mrs. Kennedy was thanked on behalf of The Empire Club by Dr. H. V. Cranfield.

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Helping the Mentally Retarded

The Kennedy's family interest in working with the mentally retarded: a personal experience. Efforts to improve conditions in the field of treatment and care of the mentally retarded. Discoveries made about the condition, and some of the causes. Informing people about the dangers of contact with measles during pregnancy. The need for vaccination against measles. The establishment of workshops throughout the United States where mentally retarded may work and become accustomed to living away from home. The increase in the hiring of the mentally retarded by government and private industry. Types of jobs the retarded have done successfully. Physical fitness programmes and opportunities for play needed by mentally retarded children. The Special Olympics Programme. Appeals to the audience about how they can become involved in helping. The joys and rewards of helping.