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Down Syndrome Awareness Month: Stereotypes

Posted Oct 12 2010 12:00am
Women . . . they just can't make up their minds.

Black people are such good athletes.

Jews are naturally frugal.

Men - all they care about is their work.

Italians are such good cooks!

Do you see a theme here? It's called stereotyping. Stereotyping is a form of prejudice - even when the notions involved might be seen as positive - because it indicates an unwillingness or inability to see different classes of people outside of the molds that have been created for them by society.

Don't you think that the above statements are offensive?

What about these
Children with Downs are so loving!

Oh, I LOVE Downs people!

Downs people are always so happy!

These are statements that we parents who have children with Down syndrome hear ALL. THE. TIME. And they always come out of the mouths of people who are not themselves parents of children with Down syndrome.

Those statements seem positive and complimentary, don't they? And, seriously, who wouldn't want their kid to be happy and loving all the time? The problem is that these comments reinforce stereotypes about Down syndrome and don't allow room for individuals with Ds to be actual human beings. It turns them into caricatures, one-dimensional creatures devoid of true feelings, opinions, and personalities.

Let me just clear some things up here -

First of all, you don't KNOW Down syndrome unless you live with it day in, and day out. I don't care if you volunteer with people at your church who have Down syndrome, or if your best friend's cousin has Down syndrome, or if you shop at a grocery store that employs a person with Down syndrome - that does not make you in the know about Down syndrome. I don't even care if you've researched Down syndrome at length, or if you're a therapist or teacher who works with kids who have Ds; trust me, your knowledge and experience is defined by the limitations of the context of your relationships with these people, so you're still not witnessing or experiencing the entire, broad context of knowing Down syndrome. And even if you do have an intimate relationship with somebody who has Down syndrome, you only know that person and how Down syndrome manifests in him or her. So for anybody to say, "Oh, I LOVE people with Down syndrome!" - well, it just rubs me all kinds of wrong. And I hear it a lot. So stop it.

Moving on, let's talk about this popular notion that people with Down syndrome are extraordinarily happy and loving. I don't know where these ideas come from. I suppose it can be argued that all stereotypes have some basis in reality (maybe the cognitive impairments associated with Ds leave individuals with Ds generally unfettered by the prejudices and stresses so common in the general population?). Maybe some day when Finn is all grown up, I'll be eating my words - maybe he will, in fact, fulfill the happy, loving image so many people seem to have - though, if that happens, I'd like to be able to chalk it up to a loving, nurturing upbringing and not just that he's too stupid to be anything but happy. So far, I'm not seeing it, though. He's only two, but he shows us a full range of emotions all the time. He can be damn crabby. He's stubborn and determined. He's resistant to things he doesn't want, and shows a clear preference for certain things. He gets mad. He gets frustrated. And yes, he is affectionate and loving.

He's a person. A real, flesh-and-blood person. Just like you are, just like I am.

And that brings me to another popular notion: that people with Down syndrome are God's special angels. Okay, it's no secret that I don't believe any of that hooey, but I'm not going to debate religion or divinity here. I just want to say, though, that assigning special, divine purpose to people with Down syndrome - or to anyone! - wow. That's a lot of pressure, a pretty high calling to live up to, folks.

Finn is human, not superhuman, I can assure you. The state of his genetic makeup can be broken down very scientifically - he's got an extra twenty-first chromosome in each cell of his body. This happened on a certain night in October, 2007 when Mom and Dad got to feeling a little frisky, and a certain sperm nailed a certain egg, and whamo! The chromosomes went just a tiny bit haywire and voila - Trisomy-21. So these bonus chromos of Finn's give him certain traits, like crooked pinky fingers, slightly up-slanted eyes, and, yeah, a lower-than-typical IQ. The end.

He's not a cartoon character, or an angel, or a clone of every other person with Down syndrome. He's a unique individual. He's human. A real person.
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