Dear Fellow Policy Advocate,
Congratulations on choosing to work on national public policy issues!
I grew up in a family where politics was, and continues to be, important. I watched three brothers successfully run for public office and participated actively in their campaigns. November 2008 marks the 37th anniversary of Senator Kennedy’s election to the Senate and once again he chairs the Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee where much of the legislation originates that affects the daily lives of people with intellectual disabilities and their families. Two of my sons and my son-in-law have been elected to public office as have two nephews and a niece. Politics is an important part of my family’s life and, I dare say, critical to America’s strength as a nation. The political process is critically important to people with intellectual disabilities.
As you may know, The Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation was instrumental in starting what we now call the University Centers on Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDDs). Beginning in the late 1970’s, a new generation of young professionals emerged from these Centers with expertise in medicine, psychology, education, social work, and other disciplines so important to individuals with intellectual disabilities. These professionals finished their training programs and have obtained leadership roles in universities, non-profit service agencies, schools and government. It was an exciting time.
But something was missing. When we went to Capitol Hill to meet with Senators and Representatives, we found bright, hard working and committed staff. But few had any knowledge of the issues that affect the lives of people with intellectual disabilities and their families. We began The Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Public Policy Fellows Program in 1979 to recognize and encourage the importance of the political process to the lives of people with intellectual disabilities and their families. The Kennedy Fellowship Program was developed to fill that void in knowledge and expertise and to create policy opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities.
The basic idea for the Fellowship has not changed. The Foundation brings people to Washington for one year to learn how policy is made for people with intellectual disabilities. Whether placed in a personal Congressional office or with a Committee staff, in the Department of Education or the Department of Health and Human Services, the World Bank or the White House, Fellows learn how to create and pass laws and regulations to enhance opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. The Fellows don’t not just read books, attend lectures or observe others, they are active participants!
After their Fellowship year some Fellows choose to remain in Washington, but most return home, taking their new skills and knowledge to benefit people with intellectual disabilities, their families and their communities. Today former Fellows bring their unique perspective to their work at the local, state, national and international levels. They also encourage other families and professionals to participate in the political and policymaking process in Washington and in their own states.
Some of our first Fellows were both professionals and parents of children with intellectual disabilities. In 1996, we formally began to recruit parents as Fellows and later extended this concept to siblings. Who knows better the impact of policy on people with intellectual disabilities than mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters? I am pleased to say that the family Fellow Program is a success, frequently attracting more applicants than its professional counterpart.
I want to challenge each of you - now and always - to teach colleagues, family members, and persons with intellectual disabilities about how to get involved in making policy. This is the best way to ensure that the interests and voices of people with intellectual disabilities remain strong in Washington and in state capitals across the country. There are opportunities every day to include people with intellectual disabilities in new laws and policies, but they only benefit if they are included. You must make certain that they are!
I leave you with a quote from President Kennedy:
“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
To solve the problems and meet the challenges facing people with intellectual disabilities and their families we all - now and forever - need to get and remain involved in politics. It is our sacred responsibility.
The United States must continue to step up and fulfill its duty to provide all citizens with the tools they need to achieve greatness. Only by doing so can we remain a true example to other nations.
With your help, America will be stronger and better.
With best wishes for success,
Eunice Kennedy Shriver