This week, as Nov. 22 approached, reporters, historians and former colleagues recalled the presidency of John F. Kennedy and examined the impact of his death on that date in 1963. Many accounts describe it as that generation’s 9/11, the day when innocence was lost.
I don’t like to focus on Nov. 22 or on what could have been. What happened on that day cannot be undone. Perhaps that’s because I was 2 years old when my uncle, President Kennedy, died. But I think it’s because in my family, we choose not to commemorate the losses — we choose to remember happier times and celebrate accomplishments.
So I would ask — at least those who don’t remember where they were that Friday when television anchor Walter Cronkite choked up as he read the official news — that on Nov. 22 you don’t think about his death and what was lost. Instead please remember what my uncle inspired and accomplished in his lifetime, and what he stood for.
For me, he stood for fairness and for giving back. Through his personal gifts of charisma, compelling oratory skills and keen intellect, President Kennedy was able to do what few other national leaders have done: He was able to inspire Americans to fight for fairness and to serve others rather than themselves. Where did this focus on fairness and service come from? I think it derived in large part from his experience with his sister, Rosemary, who was born with intellectual disabilities. He witnessed firsthand how differently she was treated — how often she was ignored and excluded. He understood firsthand the pain that millions of families feel as they watch a sibling struggle for social acceptance or a parent search in vain for an educational program or job opportunity to promote independence.
He understood that the greatest barriers Rosemary faced were not the challenges of her disabilities, but instead the ignorant stereotypes held by society. President Kennedy envisioned a society where everyone would have an equal chance to succeed.
Whether people were marginalized because of their physical or mental condition, their skin color or their religion, President Kennedy felt deep concern for their personal experiences. He also understood that society had so much to gain by integration and inclusion. And he framed equal opportunity as “a moral issue.” This compassion also fueled his innovative creation of the Peace Corps and energized his call to service by all Americans as a patriotic duty.
As a lawyer for people with disabilities, I am inspired by my uncle in the work that I do. I feel his presence and influence every day. President Kennedy made the rights of people with disabilities a priority for his administration: He convened the first national conference focused on intellectual disability and established the National Institute of Child and Human Development. He believed that “reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.”
In October 1963, he signed the Community Mental Health Act, which called for an end to institutional segregation and warehousing and recommended initiatives for “community centered” services. In the years following his administration, Congress passed more than 120 laws expanding the rights and opportunities for people with disabilities. I credit my uncle and his compassion for forever changing the public’s attitudes toward people with disabilities.
This Nov. 22, I ask people not to focus on President Kennedy’s death. Instead, focus on his life. Focus on what he was able to accomplish. Remember what he did and what he imagined. Think about his compassion for others and resolve to be more compassionate yourself. Consider his call to service and find the time and space in your life to give back to our country and your community. Try to honor President Kennedy’s life by striving to be compassionate, fair and generous in your own life.
Ted Kennedy Jr. of Branford, Conn., is a disability rights activist and health care lawyer. He wrote this for The Hartford Courant.