Thursday marks World Down Syndrome Day, a day to recognize the contributions of this population and take a critical look at the challenges that remain. And there are several.
The most concerning is also the least surprising: a tendency to see those with Down syndrome as less deserving than others. It’s a sad but common human habit to assume the worst of people who don’t look, talk or act like those in our usual social circles.
What would happen if society assumed the best?
Assuming the best, society would see a lot more stories along the lines of Cody Sullivan’s, who last year became the first student with Down syndrome to graduate from a four-year college in Oregon. Today, 265 postsecondary education opportunities exist for those with Down syndrome and other disabilities, a number that likely seemed incomprehensible a few generations ago. These courses modify the educational experience to fit the needs of the students, and they are designed to prepare them to work and take care of their own needs after school.
Assuming the best would change life-altering conversations before birth. It’s not news that some countries, Iceland and Denmark in particular, take a narrow view of disabled people. There, nearly 98 percentof pregnancies are terminated when testing indicates the child may have Down syndrome. The U.S. rate is around 68 percent.
Assuming the best would ensure every life has a fair shot at a decent living, that each person has a chance to learn, work and provide for themselves according to their abilities.
Assuming the best means refuting tired beliefs with facts. People with Down syndrome don’t plateau at a young age; they continue to grow and develop, according to Deseret News reporter Lois Collins. A recent study, she reports, finds they can "walk by 25 months, speak 'reasonably well' by age 13 and take care of their own hygiene by 13 years. By age 20, they can 'work independently.' Half read 'reasonably well' by 31 years, just slightly fewer write pretty well and more than a third lived on their own by that age, while a slightly smaller number could travel alone."
Assuming the best would help communities see disabilities not as a problem to live with but as an opportunity to develop. In conjunction with year’s Down Syndrome Day, for instance, the Alana Foundation gave MIT a $28.6 million donation to establish a Down syndrome research center. “A large group of the population thinks people with Down syndrome are an important part of society and should be included,” the co-director of the foundation said. “Now that we are realizing this, the research is picking up.”Comment on this story
Assuming the best means learning from people with Down syndrome rather than discounting their contributions. They possess skills and abilities all would be wise to emulate. They may struggle with speech, but their capacity to love is endless. They may have difficulty making decisions, but they never judge and have an ability to accept everyone for who they are. They may strain to work or learn, yet they seem to be forever teaching about where simple joy is to be found and what it means to discover and cherish true happiness. They remind everyone that all are fellow travelers on the road of life.
Assuming the best would inspire untold numbers of people to achieve what they might have discounted as folly. To them, Sullivan’s counsel is encouraging, “You can do it. Never give up.” To the rest of society, the message is the same: Don’t give up on people with Down syndrome.