Decades ago, my brother-in-law Vincent participated in a local Special Olympic race. He took off at the starter’s gun, only to see a panicked fellow contestant overwhelmed by the moment, standing motionless at the starting line. Over the screaming protests of his own mother, he ran back to the starting line, took the girl’s hand, and the two ran hand-in-hand, to finish the race.

Not every Special Olympic moment is as sweet. Twenty years later, I attended a Special Olympics soccer match. Someone blew a play, only to have a teammate deliver a scolding and a swift kick. Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the Special Olympics, which Eunice Kennedy Shriver largely founded. She died today. If you don’t know much about her, you should read the beautifully-written obituary by J.Y. Smith in today’s Washington Post.

Sometimes social change arrives through landmark legislation. It can also arrive through different channels, slowly entering our lives through shifts in popular culture and through what we come to accept as normal. When landmark legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act finally arrives, these seem to ratify social consensus as much as they advance it.

On either front, no one did more than Eunice Kennedy Shriver to enlarge America’s heart to embrace people living with cognitive disabilities. No one did more to provide practical help to the millions of families who care for children or siblings living with these disabilities.

For most of our history, people with with cognitive disabilities were treated with callousness, ignorance, even brutality. From the vantage point of 2009, it is almost impossible to grasp how bad this history really was. James Trent's Inventing the Feeble Mind chronicles the story. It makes for tough reading.

When Shriver began her work, the birth of a cognitively disabled child was viewed as a private tragedy, a source of deep shame and stigma. It was considered extraordinarily brave when the author Pearl Buck and the actress Dale Evans chronicled their experiences in the poignant best-sellers The Child Who Never Grew and Angel Unaware.

Parents were expected to care for their child as best they could, for as long as they could, or to place their child into institutional care. Professionals typically advised the latter course. Periodic exposes documented the appalling conditions in many institutions. Given the almost complete absence of school- or community-based services and the extreme stigma directed at cognitively-disabled people, institutionalization was often the only feasible choice.

Shriver was the most prominent spokesperson for a pioneering generation of woman caregivers who banded together, put the world on their backs, and changed their predicament. There were many others. Historian Kathleen Jones chronicles the activism that led to the establishment of what is now the Arc. Connected by fate, finding each other through word of mouth and through discrete ads in the newspaper, tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of women became some of the most effective and feared community organizers in American history.

Special Olympics was at once a brilliant strategy to challenge general social attitudes and a practical response to the daily needs of many families. Through her philanthropy, Shriver founded summer camps, athletic facilities, and research centers.

Most of today’s encomiums rightly honor these achievements. But her role as public policy advocate is readily neglected. She played a key role in establishing the National Institute of Child Health and Development at the National Institutes of Health. She supported ambitious social policies that brought hundreds of thousands of cognitively disabled people out of the shadows to live longer and healthier, more dignified and productive lives in their homes and communities.

To say the least, much still needs to be done. Yet in so many ways, our nation’s steady embrace of cognitively-disabled citizens was a great achievement. It required a thousand points of light. It also required big and activist government operating through Medicare, Medicaid, SSI, state and federal education programs, and more.

I had one encounter with Eunice Kennedy Shriver, at the 1995 Special Olympic World Summer Games. I heard an elderly, patrician lady introduce “Hoo-Tee and the Blowfish” with great enthusiasm to the roaring crowd. Colin Powell once wrote that optimism is a force multiplier. In Shriver's case, certainly, it was.