News Flash: Not Everyone With Down Syndrome Is Suffering
I took two of my children to the mall a few weeks back. After stocking up on sneakers and sandals, we stood in line to ride the carousel. I paid $2 each for their tickets, then the lady at the cash register peered over the counter at my daughter Penny. "Is she a special need?" she asked me.
I stammered something in response.
"Special needs ride free," she said, handing me back my money.
I suppose it's a nice policy to give free rides to kids with special needs. I don't fault the lady behind the ticket counter for not knowing about "person-first" language—which is to say, she could have asked, "Does your daughter have special needs?" I don't fault her for seeing what is written on my daughter's face—Penny has trisomy 21, better known as Down syndrome, the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21 in every cell of her body.
At the same time, something bothered me about the exchange. However kind her intentions, she looked past my particular child and saw instead a broad, abstract, dehumanized category. Instead of seeing Penny, she saw "a special need."
Plenty of factors probably played into that moment, but it left me thinking about how our culture talks about Down syndrome.
I receive a daily Google alert for news stories and blog posts with the keyword "Down syndrome." There are plenty of heartwarming tales—the kid who shot a 3-pointer, the waiter who stood up for a patron with Down syndrome at the risk of his job, the gradual inclusion of characters with Down syndrome in clothing catalogues and on television shows. And in the same list as these positive takes come the negative stories: the prenatal tests designed to alert pregnant women as early as possible if their fetus has Down syndrome so they can opt to abort, the children abused by their caregivers, the young man killed at a movie theater by police after he refused to pay for a second ticket to Zero Dark Thirty.
But in both strands, the good and the bad, the language employed to describe people with Down syndrome betrays both cultural ignorance and bias. Many writers, for instance, employ the word "suffering" as a matter of course. Back when Sarah Palin was in the news, her son Trig was often described as "suffering" from Down syndrome. The New York Timeshas a photograph of a baby floating in a pool and smiling at his mother. The baby "suffers" from Down syndrome. The Huffington Post describes a young woman who is going on a date during an episode of Family Guy as someone who "suffers" from Down syndrome (I should note that in this episode the character with Down syndrome does get mocked, but there is no indication that she suffers from anything other than disrespect and meanness). The Global Grind's report of a towheaded little boy with Down syndrome who models for Target includes a picture of Ryan with a smile and a description that says he "suffers."
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