TIME Sports

Maria Shriver: We Need to Change the Game of How We Talk About Intellectual Disability

Courtesy of author

Maria Shriver is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist and producer and a best-selling author.

Nearly half of our country continues to hold onto outdated views laced with fear and misunderstanding

Growing up, my house was filled with political leaders, spiritual leaders, social justice leaders, countless friends of my four brothers and I, and people with intellectual disabilities. It was definitely an eclectic mix, and I must admit that initially no one seemed quite sure what to make of this, including me. But soon, hesitation gave way to interactions, which began to give way to open-minded (and open-hearted) conversations between groups of people who initially seemed to have little in common.

Thanks to my mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s fierce will, enormous vision, and relentless drive, I grew up believing that people with intellectual disabilities—like her sister Rosemary—were not to be feared or warehoused in institutions. I grew up hearing how these people and their families struggled in isolation. I grew up seeing my mother fight for their civil rights—their rights to an education and their human rights to be seen as valuable and important members of our larger global family. I grew up being told, and being shown, that people with intellectual disabilities were capable and able beings who could not only out-perform my siblings and our friends in athletic competition, but could also teach us lessons in family unity, perseverance, courage, and love.

We have come a long way since my mother’s backyard summer camp evolved into the global movement now known as the Special Olympics. But we still have a long way to go. In the just-published Shriver Report Snapshot: Insight into Intellectual Disabilities in the 21st Century, we learned that while the institutions that warehoused people in the 60s and 70s have closed, nearly half of our country’s adult population still say they don’t know a single person with intellectual disability, and a stunning 1 in 5 don’t even know what an intellectual disability is.

As the U.S. prepares to welcome 6,500 athletes and coaches from 165 countries to Los Angeles this weekend to compete in 25 sports at the Special Olympics World Games and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the historic Americans with Disabilities Act, these facts should ignite us all to “Change the Game.”

How do we do that? Well, the Shriver Report Snapshot reveals that the more than half of Americans who do know someone with intellectual disability, who have had a personal experience, can show us the way. They report progressive attitudes and high levels of empathy when it comes to educating people with intellectual disabilities, when it comes to where they should work, and whom they should marry and date. They are more likely to understand the hurtful implications the R-word (retard) has on this community, their family members and their supporters.

These game changers, primarily millennial women, can lead the more than 40% of the country who said they do not personally know a person with an intellectual disability. This nearly half of our country continues to hold onto outdated views laced with fear and misunderstanding.

I believe this is possible because we have witnessed the remarkable speed with which Americans can change long-held attitudes. Most recently, we’ve seen our society’s rapid evolution regarding marriage equality, and we are seeing it now on the subject of transgender rights. We are a nation that can and does change, and we owe nothing less to our citizens with intellectual disabilities.

I believe we will change as a nation when we find out that just more than 1 in 10 Americans say they count a person with intellectual disabilities as a friend. I believe we will change as a nation when we find out 22% of Americans think people with intellectual disability should not be allowed to vote. I believe we will change as a nation when you hear the stories of so many families who say their child with intellectual disabilities is not welcome on their school sports teams. I believe we will change our language when we hear from people like Eddie Barbanell who talks openly of the devastating and humiliating impact the R-Word has. I believe we will change when we hear the countless stories families around the globe tell of the positive influence their child with intellectual disabilities has had on the family unit.

I think this is especially important because 91% of Americans think some, most, or all people would terminate a pregnancy or give a child up for adoption if told they would have an intellectual disability. This is a decision based on fear of being able to handle the situation emotionally, financially and physically. Fear and misunderstanding remain.

So this week, let these Special Olympics World Games serve as a catalyst for change. Gather your family and turn on ESPN, which is devoting its prime-time television space to these remarkable athletes and their stories—stories that are no less powerful and inspiring than the stories that come out of the Olympics every four years.

Have a dialogue with your children about inclusion, acceptance, and language. If you live in LA, come and watch. Reach out to someone you know with an intellectual disability or a family with a child with intellectual disabilities. If you don’t know someone, as my mother would say, go find someone. They’re here. They probably live near you. If you pass a person on the street with intellectual disabilities, instead of averting your glance and walking by, stop. Smile. Start a conversation. Share what you learn. These simple actions will begin to change the game.

Then, the next time we take the pulse of this country, I’m confident those excluding and isolating numbers will have shifted. I’m confident that we will be a better, stronger and more compassionate country if we include and value everyone in it. #LetsChangetheGame

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

Maria Shriver: Jill Abramson Will Be Fine—Low-Income Women Are the Ones in Trouble

We really can’t talk about how women lead until we talk about how women work.

The abrupt firing of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson has set off a firestorm in the media opinion-sphere. The sparks are flying everywhere — sparks ignited by phrases like “pay gap” and “leadership gap,” “pushy women,” and “bitchy bosses.” It has triggered heated discussions around he-said-she-said, who’s right, who’s wrong, who screwed up, who’s to blame.

I don’t know all the ins and outs of the Abramson case, but I do know this: Jill Abramson is going to be fine. What I also know is that the gender pay gap in this country is real, especially for low-income working women. That’s who isn’t doing fine.

As we reported earlier this year in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, women are about half the U.S. work force, but the average woman earns only 77 cents for every dollar the average man makes (and women of color earn even less). That pay gap is one reason that one in three working women in this country lives on or over the brink of poverty. In fact, nearly 70% of the more than 100 million Americans living on the brink of poverty, or churning in and out of it, are women and the children who depend on them.

Not doing something about this gaping hole in our economy is penny wise, but pound foolish. According to new economic research, closing the gender pay gap would not only cut poverty in half for working women and their families, it would also pump nearly half a trillion dollars in additional income into the U.S. economy. How? Because these women would be less likely to sock their money away for a rainy day. They would spend it — on food and clothes for the family, on transportation, on education, on goods and services in their communities.

We really can’t talk about how women lead until we talk about how women work. The gender wage gap isn’t the only problem. We have a culture that doesn’t value the paid care work so many women do — including nursing aides, psychiatric aides, and home health care aides. More than 70% of low-wage workers get no paid sick days at all. And what about all the unpaid caregiving women do? This is the only industrialized country on Earth without a national childcare or family leave policy, so millions of working American women see their paychecks gobbled up by their child care costs and the cost of taking time off to care for their elderly or sick parents. That means they work less and can’t get ahead.

This year, Equal Pay Day fell on April 8th, which means the average woman who worked all last year had to work until that day of this year to make what the average man earned in 2013. Because knowledge of what your male and female co-workers make is power, on April 8th, President Obama signed two executive orders to narrow the gender pay gap. One order bars federal contractors from punishing employees who share information about how much they earn, and the second requires those same contractors to report the salaries of their workers to the federal government, according to sex and race.

These measures affect only about one-fifth of the nation’s work force, but it’s a start. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would extend these regulations to the rest of our workers, has been blocked multiple times in Congress. And how about the minimum wage? Women make up nearly two-thirds of the minimum-wage workers in this country, but the bill to raise the federal minimum wage has also been blocked. The good news is that seven states and many cities have increased their own minimum wage this year, and 30 other states are considering it.

How do we get real nationwide change in our policies and practices so we can help women, who are not only half of our workers but also about two-thirds of the primary or co-breadwinners in American families? One way is by electing officials who support what I would call “A Woman’s Nation” platform: legislation like paid sick leave, paid family leave, a livable minimum wage, affordable pre-K and child care — legislation to help these women be productive, stay in the work force, and earn wages that support their families and therefore boost the economy. That would be good policy for men and for women.

So while the opinion-sphere heats up with back-and-forth about Jill Abramson and The New York Times, tens of millions of hard-working women struggle to keep their families off the brink, struggle to care for kids and parents, and struggle to choose between missing a day of work and missing grandma’s doctor appointment. The truth is, we are already A Woman’s Nation, and real change will come only when women’s work — paid and unpaid — gets as much attention as does the newsroom of The New York Times.

Maria Shriver is a mother of four, a Peabody- and Emmy Award-winning journalist and producer, a six-time New York Times best-selling author, and an NBC News Special Anchor covering the shifting roles, emerging power and evolving needs of women in modern American life. Since 2009, Shriver has produced the high-profile and groundbreaking multi-platform Shriver Reports that chronicle and explore seismic shifts in American culture and society affecting women today. While Shriver was California’s First Lady from 2003 to 2010, she spearheaded what became the nation’s premier forum for women, The Women’s Conference.

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