Eunice Kennedy Shriver, 88, a member of the most prominent Irish American family in the nation and an accomplished trailblazer on behalf of people with disabilities, died early Tuesday morning at the Cape Cod Hospital, near to the Kennedy family retreat at Hyannis.

Shriver, a founding member of the Special Olympics, had been in poor health for months, having suffered a series of debilitating strokes.

Sister of President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert and Edward Kennedy, for decades Shriver advocated tirelessly on behalf of the mentally disabled and many political commentators have called her contributions to the disability rights movement the greatest Kennedy legacy.

Two days before she was first hospitalized in November 2007, Shriver was honored for her work with the disabled at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. That year she also traveled to Shanghai to attend her final Special Olympics, the sports competition for the mentally disabled that she helped found in 1968.

The Special Olympics first grew out of a summer camp that Shriver started at her family farm in suburban Maryland, and it went a long way toward erasing the long-held stigmas and taboos about mental disability that the Kennedy family knew well because Eunice had a sister Rosemary who was mentally disabled.

“I had enormous affection for Rosie,” Shriver said in a radio interview in 2007. “If I never met Rosemary, never known anything about handicapped children, how would I have ever found out? Because nobody accepted them anyplace.”

In Ireland President Mary McAleese led tributes to the founder of the Special Olympics. “Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a visionary who devoted her life to creating a better and more inclusive world for people with disability. She created an organization and a community in which people with disability could demonstrate their talents and where all of us could participate and learn,” McAleese said.

Ireland hosted the Special Olympics World Games in 2003. Some 6,500 athletes from 170 countries competed, and Kennedy was on hand to witness the event. It was the first time the event was held outside the U.S. Since then, participation in Special Olympics events in Ireland has almost doubled.

Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen described Kennedy as a woman of great courage and an inspiration to all.

“She worked tirelessly in her crusade to enhance the lives of those with
intellectual disabilities. As a member of the Kennedy clan, Eunice always had a special place in her heart for Ireland and a love of our country and its people.”

The chief executive of Special Olympics Ireland Matt English told the Irish press on Tuesday that few people can be credited with having changed the lives of so many.

“Her vision and determination to change attitudes towards intellectual disability has resulted in an organization that offers people with an intellectual disability the opportunity not only to win at sport, but to win at life. It’s testament to Eunice Shriver’s vision that there are now 11,000 athletes between the ages of eight and 60 competing in Ireland. That’s part of her legacy,” English said.