This column was published on Ohio.com on May 6, 2017. One column only scratches the surface on the topic of life with Down syndrome in the United States in 2017. For more articles, videos and profiles of adults with Down syndrome, please refer to my public Facebook page, “Whoopsie Piggle,” or my blog of the same name on WordPress.
Kelsi graduating from Clemson
Mikayla at Bethel
Clayton at UNLV
Luke at Saginaw Valley State University
Two women walk into two separate pediatric medical genetics offices. Both are told by genetics counselors that they are carrying fetuses with Down syndrome and not to expect their children to function beyond the abilities of a 6-year-old child. Ever.
No. This happened in 2017 at University Hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic. No joke.
Every September since our daughter Lyra was born, I’ve spoken to first-year medical students at Case Western Reserve University. Too early into their medical educations to know what medical specialty they will ultimately practice, these students are the ideal audience.
Why? Because health care professionals in all specialties need to hear this: People with Down syndrome are fully human and today lead lives little different than the students themselves.
One day those students may be the gatekeepers for who receives care, or who even exists. Therefore, unlike far too many of today’s health care professionals, they need to give information based not on assumptions or on outdated and false stereotypes, but on facts. After all, medicine is a science, and science is founded on the pursuit of facts.
• In a study in which people with Down syndrome over age 12 were asked to weigh in, “nearly 99 percent of people with DS indicated that they were happy with their lives, 97 percent liked who they are, and 96 percent liked how they look. Nearly 99 percent of people with DS expressed love for their families, and 97 percent liked their brothers and sisters. While 86 percent of people with DS felt they could make friends easily, those with difficulties mostly had isolating living situations.”
And what of the families? More facts:
• The incidence of divorce is lower in families with a child who has Down syndrome than in families who have children with other disabilities and, get this, families whose children are all nondisabled, according to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
• In a study of older siblings of a person with Down syndrome, 94 percent expressed feelings of pride for their sibling with DS, and 88 percent cited that they are better people for having a sibling with DS. I venture it’d be hard to replicate those numbers among families with just typical children.
The “Down syndrome advantage” is a phrase that has been coined in light of these and many similar studies. And from my own nonscientific research, confessions of a grandchild with DS being their grandparents’ favorite is so common, it’s almost unanimous.
Yes, challenges exist for parents raising a child with Down syndrome. About half of babies born with DS have congenital heart defects, though most are corrected completely with surgery. Also, most children with DS are born with low muscle tone, which not only results in delayed gross motor skills (sitting up, crawling, walking) and fine motor skills (eating with utensils, self-dressing, writing), it also impacts speech. Our daughter Lyra has been in speech therapy most of her life and may well continue throughout her life.
But there has never been a better time to be born with Down syndrome, at least in most parts of the United States and many other countries, though not all.
So why do so many medical providers persist in sharing horridly inaccurate opinions, as opposed to the facts, as shown in scientific research, when delivering a diagnosis of Down syndrome? I believe this is mostly a generational issue. I cannot recall meeting or hearing of a health care professional under age 40 who is negatively biased towards people with DS.
In fact, among women receiving a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, the number who choose to terminate has decreased slightly in recent years, according to a study published in the journal Prenatal Diagnosis. The presumption is that today’s young women, unlike my generation, grew up seeing people with DS on television, as well as knowing people with DS in their schools and communities. Firsthand exposure to people with DS is the antidote to the biased notion that people in this population cannot function beyond the level of a 6-year-old.
The summer Lyra turned 2, we went to a family-friendly party in a sprawling yard. I had a fabulous conversation with a smart and funny woman my age. Nearby, Lyra was hustling about in her newly perfected bear walk.
“She’s so cute, how she crawls on her hands and feet,” said the woman.
“Yeah, it takes them much longer to crawl and walk with Down syndrome.”
“Wait, your daughter has Down syndrome?”
“Oh, yes,” I said.
“You are so much stronger than I could have been,” the woman said and I disagreed with her. “No,” she continued, “I’m telling you that you are stronger than I was. In my late 30s, I was still single and had IVF to get pregnant. When I was pretty far along, they told me the baby had Down syndrome and gave me two days to decide. I couldn’t do it. I would have been alone, I … I didn’t do it.”
“I have no judgment,” I said, knowing this woman made the best decision she could with the information she was given. I then watched the features on her face rearrange themselves, her eyes going from narrowed and intense to wide and open.
“But I see your daughter and,” she paused, “it makes me wonder.”
I gave her my card, but not surprisingly, I never heard from her. In less than two minutes, I watched a woman think she could not possibly have raised a child with Down syndrome to wondering deeply, perhaps painfully, what her life might really have been like with a child who had Down syndrome. All the wonderful possibilities, along with manageable challenges, that her health care professionals neglected to tell her.
Two years ago when Max and I attended our first National Down Syndrome Congress (NDSC) convention, Lyra was 11 months old and I was panicky. I felt we had a small window to engage her mind, teach her body to move optimally, and lay the groundwork for speech intelligibility. We left our first convention with lots of information and a plastic box from Talk Tools filled with straws, horns and bite sticks. Once home, we promptly bought a tumbling mat for gross motor exercises and began weekly sessions of physical, occupational and speech therapies at Akron Children’s Hospital. Because of these and other early interventions I have (mostly) abandoned my fears over what we may have missed.
Now three years old, Lyra walks, talks, feeds herself, helps get dressed, is potty training and does most everything expected of a preschooler. Meanwhile, Max and I have largely hurdled our Down syndrome learning curve by reading books, meeting doctors and therapists, attending programs, and getting to know other families. But just as important is Lyra herself. Not only can we now see the relative impact Down syndrome has on her abilities (not so much as we thought on the day she was born), but over the past three years, her personality has unfurled—she’s plucky, sweet and, yes, smart. Lyra is our music-loving, temper-throwing, messy-eating girl. She adores her brothers, her dogs and her cats and refers to each by name. She loves going to preschool and daycare but fights like a greased monkey when getting her contact lenses changed, her blood drawn or her teeth brushed. A daddy’s girl, she cries when Max leaves for work and eats all her food when he sits next to her at the table after defiantly refusing to try a bite for me.
Lyra is not Down syndrome; Lyra is fully human. A human who has Down syndrome.
The Long View
As our focus on Lyra shifts away from the acquisition of basic life skills, the only therapy she needs, for now, is speech. We confirmed this in Phoenix this past summer at the NDSC convention. For three years in a row physical therapist Pat Winders has evaluated Lyra’s gross motor skills at the convention. This year Lyra walked and ran for Ms. Winders, both in her braces (and shoes) and barefoot. “She’s doing great!” said Ms. Winders. “Her heels look straight, her feet are bending and her thighs are moving behind her as she strides. Keep her in Sure Step braces for a couple more years and then switch to an orthotic insert like Chipmunks. Remember, we don’t want our kids in physical therapy forever, she’s doing everything she should right now.” (Whew!)
As we explore educational options for Lyra and how we might advocate for her, we are no longer panicked. Currently she is thriving in preschool, and there is time to research what comes next. After three years of what sometimes felt like a graduate program on Down syndrome and early interventions, we can now look up and consider the long view of life for Lyra. And there is no better place to observe what her life as an adult might be like than at the NDSC convention.
Down Syndrome Self-Advocates
“Oh, look, there’s Aaron!” I said to Max. After a leisurely breakfast on the opening day of this year’s convention, we walked to the hotel hallway reserved for the self-advocates’ events, which include elections to the NDSC board. Each year we are greeted by Aaron who introduces himself, shakes our hands and asks that we help him get elected.
For you see, as much as the annual NDSC convention is a place for parents of children (of all ages) with Down syndrome to gain valuable information and make meaningful connections with other families, the convention is equally significant for teens and adults who have Down syndrome. The NDSC’s mission is to improve the world for people with Down syndrome through an organized collaboration of families of people with Down syndrome, the communities in which they live and, importantly, self-advocates. And their board of directors reflects this composition. Each annual convention has rooms dedicated to the board elections and self-advocate committees.
“How old do you have to be in order to vote in board elections, Aaron?” I asked, wondering when Lyra could participate. Aaron did not know so we approached a young couple walking toward us with supplies to decorate a table. Like so many self-advocates at the convention, they promptly introduced themselves. The four of us chatted about where we were all from when suddenly the woman poked the man’s side with a shrink-wrapped package of cardboard containers. “Don’t just stand there talking, help me open these,” she said teasingly. Both in their twenties, neither could remember when they first participated in the NDSC elections as they have been voting for many years.
We turned to a delicate woman working on a nearby table, her salt and pepper hair swept up in a Gibson Girl bouffant. “I don’t know remember when they can first vote, it’s been so long ago for my son, maybe fifteen?” She said and then asked, “How old is your daughter? Three? Are you working on speech? It is so important to work on speech. Have you met my Tony? You haven’t? It seems like everyone knows my Tony. He’s 27. Oh, you must meet him, where is he? Well, I’m sure we’ll run into each other again and I’ll introduce you.” We ran into Tony’s mom repeatedly over the next three days, but never managed to meet Tony. He was always off with his friends squeezing the most out of a weekend where Down syndrome is the rule, not the exception.
Seeing Myself in Sarah
What was once new is now familiar. After leaving the self-advocates’ hallway, we walked to the exhibit hall to find our friends. We hugged the founders of Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network, an organization that does such important work nationwide it is hard to imagine it has been in existence only a few short years. From DSDN we went to another young non-profit named for the daughter of founders Tim and Liz Planchta. Ruby’s Rainbow grants scholarships to people with Down syndrome for post-secondary education, whether it be college, job training or enrichment programs. Once unheard of, post-secondary education is becoming as common an expectation for people with Down syndrome as it is for all high school graduates, and with good cause. Many adults with Down syndrome are living independently and post-secondary education maximizes their employment options (um, you know, like it does for everyone). I regularly hear from adults with Down syndrome how important it is to them to be productive members of their communities.
After visiting friends, Max and I strolled through the exhibit hall. Writer Sarah Savage Cooley was selling her books at a table. In Of Love & LossPoetry or Tears? she uses poetry to tell her story of falling in love, getting married, difficulties, divorce, and continued feelings of loss post-divorce. Writers commonly process major challenges in life, like divorce, by writing about them (I wrote a 300-page book about the end of my marriage). Ms. Cooley, who has Down syndrome, is no different. But it was The Selected Essays of Sarah Savage Cooley that rooted me to the floor in front her table. In “Following My Dreams,” she rails against her treatment as a child in a special education program:
When I was going to school I was normal like everyone else, but I was put into special education to get special help. Wherever I went I had an aide in each class. I am a hard worker, wanted to be independent. Instead I had an aide who helped me with the class work, the aides talked to the teachers. I even had special homework assignments. I always left the classroom with the aide for special help. I wanted to stay in the classroom to do regular classroom assignments like everyone else…When I had an aide in each class I felt so uncomfortable. I wanted to be an individual who goes to high school with her friends, goes to classes. But in each class I went to there was an aide who was with me, who didn’t want me to have my own space.
In “Found Out What My Future Will Be,” Sarah describes her frustration over the job she has instead of the career she wants:
I just wish everyone could stop treating me special and let me grow up and go my own way in my life and let me focus on my dream… It’s important for me to become a book author. That’s all I ever wanted to be in my life, and it’s the one thing I want to do for my future…I wasn’t planning on working at the Disabilities Rights Center for the rest of my life…I want to be in one place that I love, to go to college, study writing, work at a place of my dreams that comes true for me, be who I want to be, become a book author, and explore the world around me.
“You know, Sarah,” I said as I closed her book, “I am a writer and all I want to do is work on my book. But I have another job because I need to make money.”
“Me too!” she said, looking up at me through her wire-rimmed glasses, “All I want to do is write my book!”
We bought two of Sarah’s books, signed for Lyra. Moments later, we met a medical fellow from the Thomas Center for Down Syndrome at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital who researches depression in people with Down syndrome. I told him he should meet Sarah Cooley and read her books, poignant writing about the interior life of a person with Down syndrome. “Oh, I know her work,” the young doctor told me. “It’s required reading at the Thomas Center.”
I am writing a book on Down syndrome for people who do not know someone with Down syndrome because I want to eradicate the misperceptions of what it means to have three twenty-first chromosomes. Sarah Savage Cooley, using the same means of expression as me, the written word, has achieved this. Her books, in the hands of those who guide the research on and the care of people with Down syndrome, are changing perceptions. Sarah’s life has not always been easy, but she’s channeled her misery and frustration into her craft, thereby positively affecting the lives of countless people she will never meet. There is not much more a writer can hope to achieve.
Wait, Was That Who I Think It Was?
I think I saw Don’t Limit Me Megan!I texted to one of my oldest friends, Mariko.
Huh?She wrote back.
The video you sent me, girl with DS talking in classroom!
On my way to the ladies room, a young woman with long dark hair glided by me in a linen dress with black piping. Several minutes later it clicked: That was Megan Bomgaars! Many months earlier Mariko, who has a niece with Down syndrome, sent me Ms. Bomgaars’ YouTube video, “Don’t Limit Me,” which reminds me of my parenting mantra: “Push and support.”
All children have limited power in society and need adults to advocate on their behalf. I have done so for each of my five children. But children are not pets or, as Bomgaars says in her video, mascots. In her video, Bomgaars underscores the importance of holding the same high, but not impossible, standards for my daughter with Down syndrome as I do for my other children while also supporting her when necessary, which for Bomgaars included a school aide. (Yep, people with Down syndrome are not a monolithic group and can have different opinions.) Every educator should watch “Don’t Limit Me” and listen to woman with Down syndrome insightfully describe what is needed when educating children with Down syndrome.
The Awesome Tim Harris
Parents at the NDSC convention often reminisce about the self-advocate keynote speakers they have heard over the years, which I attribute to two things: One, these keynote speakers are first-hand, living examples of people with Down syndrome leading rich, full lives. Secondly, in a weekend mostly spent listening to the trained experts on Down syndrome, including health care professionals, educators, researchers or lawyers, it is as important and so rewarding to listen to the true experts on Down syndrome: Adults with Down syndrome.
I arrived in the grand ballroom just as restaurateur Tim Harris danced onstage to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” Speaking to over a thousand people, Harris was as commanding and infectious a keynote speaker as I have heard at any conference or convention, including those not related to Down syndrome. Here are a few snippets from his speech:
I am Tim Harris, I’m 29 years old and I am living my dreams! When I say “Oh, yeah!” you say, “Oh, yeah!”
Oh yeah! (Tim Harris)
Oh, yeah! (Audience)
I serve great food and lots of hugs. I have hugged over 70,000 people. The world needs more hugs. I’m doing my part, are you doing yours? Stand up and hug the people next to you!
Believe in yourself. Fifteen years ago, Tim’s Place was only an idea. Today, it’s a tourist destination.
People ask me and my family advice and I did what any awesome person would do: I started a non-profit, Tim’s Big Heart Foundation, to help other people with disabilities start their businesses. Matt Cottle is here tonight to tell you about the bakery he started with the grant he got from my foundation.
(Mr. Cottle, who has autism, stepped up to the podium and spoke with the deadpan delivery of comedian Steven Wright as he described the hundreds of scones and other pastries his parents patiently let him produce in their house as he mastered baking. On the website for his business, The Stuttering King Bakery, Mr. Cottle points out that 91% of adults with autism are unemployed and his mission is “to impact the autistic world and serve as an inspiration for other autistic people to be productive, active members of the community.” Mr. Cottle hopes to one day open a brick-and-mortar bakery where he will employ others who have autism.)
I want to thank not only Matt for opening his bakery, but his family for supporting him and his dreams. (Mr. Cottle returned to his seat with his family.)
I am a superhero. My super power is love.
Be the light. When I was born, people told my parents they were very, very sorry I had Down syndrome. I guess they didn’t know how awesome I’d be. I’m sure it was scary for my parents but they always saw the light in me.
Use your light to help others. Everyone can be awesome.
Meeting Mr. Awesome
On the last day of the convention, I ran into a man in the lobby as I was turning with Lyra in my arms.
“Are you Tim Harris?” I asked.
“I’m Tim,” he said.
“You gave such a great talk the other night!” I told him.
“Thank you. But, but, tell me, is this your daughter? Do you know she is awesome? She is going to grow up and do awesome things and my foundation is going to give her a grant to follow her dreams. Don’t ever forget she is awesome!” And then he was gone, ushered out by his family who, perhaps more than everyone else, struggled to stay on schedule.
“You know, I heard he didn’t used to be so good at talking with people, that his success has really propelled him into everything he is now,” said one of our friends when I told him Lyra and I had just met Tim Harris.
It’s an upward spiral: the more Tim Harris accomplishes, the more he can accomplish. Do people like Tim Harris, Megan Bomgaars and Sarah Savage Cooley have the support of their families and friends? Certainly. But is that not true of most, if not all, people leading genuinely successful lives? Imagine, however, if their parents had believed that a child with Down syndrome would not read, write, do math—let alone write books, make films, own restaurants and start foundations? Sadly, that misconception is still widely held among people who do not know someone with Down syndrome and even a few who do. Yet these three adults and others with Down syndrome are not only succeeding personally, it is far from hyperbole to say that they are making the world a better place for others. Who among us can say the same?
Just as Lyra teaches us at home, these adult self-advocates teach me more than any session I have attended at the NDSC convention. When I talk with someone like Sarah Cooley or watch Megan Bomgaars’ video or listen to Tim Harris speak, I am inspired by them to live my life better, fuller and kinder. They are models not just for what my daughter can aspire to become, but what I can aspire to become too.
Your daughter was born with Down syndrome. Do not expect her to read, write, do math or ever drive a car.
A physician said these words to the parents of a buoyant baby girl, aptly named Grace, in the days after her birth at UC Davis Medical Center. It sounds like something a doctor might have said in the 1960s. But in fact those words were spoken in August of 2012, the same month that our daughter, Lyra, was born. The parents who were told this spent the first months of their daughter’s life in a gloomy fog, bereft because of what they were told not to expect.
Too many physicians, people whose job it is to know the latest research and trends, do not understand the realities of a Down syndrome diagnosis but instead cling to limiting portrayals. Why is that? That falsehoods regarding a diagnosis of DS are tenaciously held and promulgated by anyone, but especially health care professionals, needles me as I try to understand why. The only explanation I’ve come up with is that it is still acceptable to discriminate against this specific population.
Driving to Denver: Our First National Down Syndrome Congress Convention
While always a resource for information, support and research, the primary function of the non-profit NDSC is holding the annual convention. For two and a half days, sessions are held addressing they myriad challenges families of people with Down syndrome face, as well as sessions for people with DS themselves, at different ages and developmental stages. Many families come every year and one such veteran of the convention, a mother from Arkansas, recommended we stick to the sessions that relate to our child’s age.
Max and I, both incurable students, were eager to attend but the roughly 1400-mile drive might have been a deal breaker if the destination were not Denver. The fact that Max’s sisters and their families live just outside of Denver sealed the deal. And so, taking ten-month-old Lyra, 3-year-old Leif and and thirteen-year-old Jules, who helped navigate and keep the babies happy, I drove to Denver. Max flew out two days after we left, yet arrived six hours before we did.
The first session we attended was on speech development. Even though it was four and a half hours long, it was heavily attended. Primarily an overview of the benefits of early and ongoing speech therapy for children with a diagnosis of DS, for me the highlight of the presentation was a short video. In it, five young women with Down syndrome were interviewed. Sitting at a table together, they discussed their training—two women were certified pre-school childcare assistants, having taken 90 hours of training at their local community college—and their careers. They talked about boyfriends and parties. Easily understandable, their language was rich and their conversational styles flowed naturally and comfortably.
At a break, I began talking with the families around me. They, like me, want their children to speak clearly and fluidly. “People judge intelligence by speech, it’s not fair, but they do,” said one father, distilling one of my greatest fears about my daughter’s Down syndrome in one short sentence. The truth of his statement was like a figurine on a revolving dais spinning slowly in the middle of our conversation. That some people with DS have difficulty speaking may not be reflective of their cognitive abilities, but rather due to physical challenges including hypotonic mouth muscles and the forward placement of the tongue. This fact is not widely understood by the general population. Instead, those who speak unclearly, or not at all, are deemed ignorant and too often are dismissed as valid members of society.
In our society, general intelligence is primarily understood by the strength of someone’s linguistic intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence. College entrance exams exclusively test these two modalities, which also happen to be the two most challenging modalities of intelligence for people with a diagnosis of Down syndrome.
On the other hand, it has been repeatedly shown that many people with DS are hyper-social and hyper-sensitive, that is, they have strong interpersonal intelligence. And many folks in the DS community joke that the 21st chromosome is the “music” chromosome as singing, dancing and listening to music are passions of a significant number of people with DS. Our own girl loves her music-man brother, Hugo. When she is fussy, Hugo often takes her to the living room and plays the guitar or piano while singing, just for her. She instantly quiets and remains content for as long as he makes music. She does not, however, fall asleep while her personal minstrel plays for her.
Nobody Walks in L.A.
When we weren’t in sessions, Max and I walked around the exhibit hall pushing Lyra in her stroller. There were things to buy like eyeglasses and clothing specifically designed to fit people with DS. We purchased a speech therapy kit for Lyra that includes several straws, to be introduced at graduating levels because, unlike a bottle or sippy cup, when drinking from a straw, the tongue naturally moves to the back of the mouth. I spoke at length with a remarkable young couple, Tim and Liz Plachta, who have created a post-secondary scholarship fund for people with Down syndrome. Ruby’s Rainbow is named for their young daughter who has a diagnosis of DS.
At a table for Adam’s Camp, a program in the Rocky Mountains where five therapists work with five kids for five days to get a boost in therapy goals, we met a father whose child with DS was ten years old. No longer in shock and overwhelmed, like so many of the parents there with babies, this dad was relaxed. As he chatted with us, his three children crowded around Lyra’s stroller, making her smile and clap. He told me he and his wife plan their yearly vacations around two things: a week at Adam’s Camp for their son with Down syndrome (while his siblings are at the typical camp on the same YMCA campus) and the NDSC convention.
“You know, we came the first time to the convention when our boy was just a baby, just like your little girl there, and the keynote speaker was this woman from LA. She was an actress with Down syndrome and I recognized her from TV shows she’d been on. She also worked in an office and drove there in her convertible BMW. In L.A. That changed everything for us, like how we think about our son and his life. So we’ve been back every year since then.”
Unlike the actress with Down syndrome, I’m not so sure I can drive in L.A., where the traffic is notoriously congested and the drivers are, even more notoriously, aggressive.
The Goal of Therapies
Shortly after Lyra was born, our local support group gave us a copy of the book, Gross Motor Skills in Children with Down Syndrome by Patricia Winders. Ms. Winders was at the convention and presented one session for pre-walkers and another for children who are already walking. Max and I both went to the session on pre-walkers and I am glad we did. After breaking down the early stages of gross motor skills into five stages, she asked for baby volunteers and chose Lyra to demonstrate Stage 3. While she sits up quite solidly now, Lyra does not put her arms out to catch herself if she tips over and, as a result, we cannot leave her alone sitting up unless she is on a padded surface. Ms. Winders had Lyra doing any number of seemingly impossible tasks in no time flat.
That was thrilling, but what stuck with me the most from that session was the feet of another child. They haunt me. With their lax ligaments, children with Down syndrome can easily develop pronated feet if they do not receive early interventions. Stage 4 was demonstrated by a two-year-old girl, who has been “cruising” furniture for a few months but was not yet walking independently. This small child’s ankles bulged over her instep while her toes splayed sideways looking almost like fins.
“Has anyone recommended she use Sure Step braces?” asked Ms. Winders.
“I took her to the orthopedic surgeon,” said the girl’s mother, “and he just said, ‘She has Down syndrome; she’ll walk funny,’ and he didn’t want to do surgery.” It doesn’t take a doctor to see that the girl’s feet would eventually cause her pain from the completely avoidable malformation that was occurring. This mother was not derelict; she had taken her child to a specialist. The doctor’s attitude is reprehensible, if not malpractice.
Patrica Winders rolled her eyes and told the mom to get her daughter in Sure Step braces, not something like Sure Steps, but precisely that brand. And she stated to the entire audience the same point that the speech therapists we’d listened to had told us in other sessions:
The goal of early interventions is not to speed up the achievement of developmental milestones; the goal is to learn the skills correctly, which is much easier to do than it is to unlearn incorrect patterns that a child has developed as compensatory techniques.
Breaking News and Controversy: To Have DS or Not? That Is the Question.
In the middle of the convention, I received a text message from my friend Mariko, whom I have known since high school. Mariko’s text had a link to this Boston Globe article in which researchers have been able to “turn off” the extra 21st chromosome in cells taken from a man with Down syndrome. The application of this research is a long way from being determined.
To be able to end or remediate the medical complications and the cognitive limitations many people with Down syndrome face may seem to many, at first blush, a no-brainer. But I felt stopped in my tracks. The NDSC mantra is “More Alike than Different” and their work in educating society and supporting families encourages an attitude of integrating, not marginalizing, people with Down syndrome. There are many slogans on things from T-shirts, to Facebook groups (including one I belong to), and the aforementioned non-profit, Ruby’s Rainbow, that refer to Down syndrome as “rocking the 21st chromosome.” So what does it mean if somewhere down the road the medical technology exists to eliminate the effects of that very chromosome?
In the days since I first heard of this new research, voices have piped up to state that this would be akin to cultural genocide, including this Canadian woman whose daughter has DS:
We’ve got a genetically similar community, visible minority who are being targeted and terminated globally. People think, Well, this is the way it is and these people just shouldn’t be.
This news initiated one of the most achingly honest conversations I have read on a social media Down syndrome support group. Generally, the comments on that group are full of cheers for each others’ children as they master some milestone or another. And just as often, words of comfort are given, and prayers offered, when families post about set backs or serious medical interventions, such as open-heart surgery. The idea of “turning off” the extra 21st chromosome strikes this chord with so many families: It is offensive that people do not accept our children the way that they are, but it is also true that our children struggle greatly not only with health issues but also learning their basic gross and fine motor skills, speech and hosts of other things that we in the “typical community” take for granted. People with Down syndrome may be more alike than different from people without an extra 21st chromosome, but their successes often come due to intensive interventions and plain old work. Hard work.
And after all that work, even if a child with Down syndrome grows into the most independent, successful adult, what awaits is a cruel sentence. Alzheimer’s is not a matter of if, but when. All adults with Down syndrome begin manifesting the physical pathology of Alzheimer’s in their forties. 80% will go on to develop dementia. And, yes, there was a session at the NDSC convention on this subject.
Again, what we don’t know is what this latest research will bring to bear on the lives of today’s children with a diagnosis of Down syndrome. Research on Down syndrome, and the attendant complications, is being conducted worldwide. At the NDSC convention, Lyra gave saliva samples to a scientist studying autoimmune disorders in Down syndrome (Lyra’s hypothyroidism is considered an autoimmune disorder) at the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome.
What Does it Mean to Have Down Syndrome?
If someday there is a medical way to “turn off” the extra 21st chromosome, I suspect that the Down syndrome community will treat it similarly to the way the Deaf community has responded to cochlear implants as described in this article:
The conflict concerning cochlear implants is centered on the definition of disability. If deafness is defined as a disability, as it is from the medical view, it is something to be altered and repaired. On the other hand, if deafness is defined as a cultural identity, it should be allowed to thrive and, given the emphasis on diversity in today’s society, should be readily accepted and supported. Therefore, although the controversy over cochlear implantation seems simple, it is based on the very complicated and often unstated implications of the true meaning of deafness.
I don’t know what we, or Lyra herself, would one day choose to do. Of course I would want to spare my child the suffering of early onset Alzheimer’s, but everything about my daughter’s diagnosis of Down syndrome has caused me to rethink so much of what I once assumed.
The bigger question is whether having Down syndrome is such a bad thing. Yes, all the medical and health issues suck, suck, suck. If I could wave a wand and take away all the attendant medical issues that come with Down syndrome, I would. Without hesitation.
But consider this: People with Down syndrome are vastly happier than people without Down syndrome. Physician and researcher Brian Skotko published the following findings:
99 percent of adults with Down syndrome reported feeling happy with their lives
Another 97 percent said they liked who they were and
96 percent liked the way they looked
97 percent of siblings ages 12 and older expressed feelings of pride about their brother or sister with Down syndrome and
88 percent were convinced they were better people because of their sibling with Down syndrome
The Cost of Ignorance: Justice for Ethan Sayer
In Maryland last January, a young man with Down syndrome tried to watch Zero Dark Thirty for a second time in a movie theater before buying a second ticket (his family believes, based upon his phone record, that he was trying to do so with his cell phone). Three sheriff’s deputies, who were working mall security, brutally apprehended Ethan Saylor for this offense. Mr. Saylor’s caregiver was present and told the officers not to touch her client because it would escalate things. She was right. It did.
Instead of treating him like they would any other adult human, intead of listening to the simple advice of his care giver, instead of using training they claimed to have received for dealing with people with developmental disabilities, the sheriff’s deputies assaulted Ethan Saylor. And instead of watching Zero Dark Thirty at the time it was scheduled, the other audience members witnessed the beginnings of a murder. After being dragged out of their view, audience members report hearing Mr. Saylor cry, “I want my mommy!” as he was shoved to the floor, handcuffed and, according to the medical examiner who conducted his autopsy, asphyxiated. His death was ruled a homicide
In January of 2013, in the United States, a man with Down syndrome was murdered by the authorities. For a movie ticket? No, for being different.
In the community of families that include someone with a diagnosis of Down syndrome, we are all Ethan Saylor’s family. His murder is the worst fear of a parent with a child who has DS. I believe Ethan would not have been murdered had he been a man without Down syndrome.
I met Ethan’s mother and sister at the NDSC convention. Hardly their first time at the convention, they’ve been regular attendees since Ethan was Lyra’s age. They had a table set up with buttons. I took several. They had photos of Ethan from the time he was a baby, with tufty blonde hair, to his high school graduation. And they had displayed his collection of police and military paraphernalia—badges, patches, hats. Ethan, I learned from his sister, was a big fan of the police and military. One of their biggest.
I talked with his sister, a pretty woman in her twenties with blonde hair framing her face in soft ringlets and blue eyes that held my gaze while we spoke. She told me that the moms of kids with Down syndrome who have been keeping up the pressure, particularly in the blogosphere, have sustained Ethan’s family as they seek justice. It hasn’t come easily. The Sheriff’s department investigated its own officers and found no need to press charges. After the release of the Sheriff’s report, witnesses to the murder have contacted the family to tell them the report was inaccurate.
The Washington Post reported last week that, “with good reason, the Justice Department is now investigating the incident as a civil rights case.”
The NDSC Takeaway
Max and I learned so much at the National Down Syndrome Congress convention about how we can help our daughter realize her full potential. We found information, support, community and tools to help us be the parents she needs us to be.
But all we learned was not bright. We learned how far our society is from treating as fully human those who have a diagnosis of Down syndrome. From baby Grace, born in a modern hospital affiliated with a major university, whose life doctors summarily dismissed her life as having any potential, to Ethan Saylor, dying at the hands of the officers sworn to protect him as a citizen.
Next year’s NDSC convention will be in nearby Indianapolis in early July. If you’ve ever been interested in attending, I strongly encourage you to do so. You’ll find us there.