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O.C.-Bound Ted Kennedy Jr. Continues Fight to Aid Disabled

April 20, 1998|ANN CONWAY

It was painful enough, learning that his cousin, Michael Kennedy, had been killed last year in a skiing accident.

But almost as painful for Ted Kennedy Jr. was the way some people talked about Michael's death.

They told him it had been for the best, he says, because Michael, 39, had broken his neck.

"The implication, of course, was that he would have been paralyzed for life--that he was better off dying than living his life in a wheelchair," says Kennedy, 36.

Kennedy knows better. Having lost his right leg to a rare bone cancer when he was 12, he has learned that living with a disability isn't the tragedy most people think it is. In fact, Kennedy believes he is better off for having spent most of his life as a disabled person.

Kennedy will speak about the effect that cancer has had on his life at a benefit in May sponsored by Circle 1000, a support group of the Hoag Cancer Center in Newport Beach.

"I like who I am today," says Kennedy, son of Sen. Ted Kennedy. "I know I'm a product of everything I've been through. Having cancer opened my eyes, sensitized me, made me more in touch with my feelings."

To those who say Michael Kennedy was better off dying than living in a wheelchair, Kennedy would ask: "How do you know? You speak to most people who use wheelchairs, or are blind or have a disability, and they will respond to you that they like their lives quite well."

Such prejudicial remarks--"a very subtle type of prejudice" Kennedy notes--are what keep him on the speaker circuit, where for 20 years he has been educating people about cancer and the civil rights of the disabled.

People with cancer are considered disabled "by virtue of the fact that a cancer diagnosis and treatment is a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act," Kennedy explains. "The discrimination faced in the workplace by people with cancer, or on an insurance application, or [on an application] for an organ transplant is similar to racial and sex discrimination," he said.

There was time, he acknowledges, when he harbored prejudices of his own toward the disabled.

After he lost his leg, he thought his life was over. "I thought it was the worst thing I could possibly imagine.

"I had been somehow inculcated and imbued with these myths about cancer and Ted Kennedy Jr.

disability, that--even though I grew up in this kind of progressive family where we were exposed to disability with my own Aunt Rosemary having mental retardation and the family being involved in the Special Olympics--I had the idea that having a disability was a miserable thing," he says.

But, with the support of his family and a caring medical staff, Kennedy began to see that he could carry on, live the life he'd hoped to live.

"Sure, it was tough at first," he says. "I felt very self-conscious about the fact that [because of chemotherapy] I didn't have any hair. I'd never go out on a date; this was in seventh grade, and you have to remember that a pimple on your cheek was a catastrophe" when you're in seventh grade."

Slowly, surely, he made headway.

His father and his mother, Joan, were steadfast in their support. "Cancer patients need a really close-knit fabric of connections in their lives--people to talk to, somebody nearby who always knows how they're feeling, what they're doing," he says.

His grandmother, Rose Kennedy, was also among those who inspired and consoled him. "Her faith was incredibly inspiring to me. She was just a really strong lady and I miss her so much," he says.

When it came time to face the sporting life, the Kennedy cousins were on hand, "throwing the football to me just as hard as they had before," he says. "That was very helpful."

These days, Kennedy, an athletic 6-footer, practices law in the areas of health and disability in New Haven, Conn. He and his wife of five years, Katherine G. Kennedy--an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine--are parents to two children, Kiley Elizabeth and Ted Kennedy III.

Kennedy has served as the executive director of Facing the Challenge, a nonprofit advocacy and public policy organization dealing with disability issues. And he has served as a teaching fellow on disability policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Life is good, he says--so good that he tells fellow cancer patients to look upon their disease as a "special challenge, not a burden."

And when you ask him to name his hero, his role model, he says without hesitation: "The doctors and nurses who commit themselves to working and helping people. They are the real, unsung heroes. I really credit them for persevering, having the energy and strength to help people like me."

The Circle 1000 Founders' Brunch will be May 27 at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach. Proceeds will benefit cancer research, patient care and support and screening programs. For information: (949) 574-7217.

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