Yesterday, Tom and I were at a wonderful event...a garden party held as a fundraiser for our local hospital. It is filled with amazing food and drink from various local restaurants and stores. Anyways, I ended up talking to someone I had never met before. We got on the topic of children and how old mine were etc. Normally I don't mention that Ryan has Down syndrome as it's really not relevant, but I did this time - "our youngest son, Ryan, has Down syndrome". Her response was one that I think is probably fairly typical: "oh,,,, I'm so sorry". I immediately replied, "don't be sorry, there's nothing to be sorry about. Absolutely not - he's wonderful". To her credit, she took my response and immediately said, "yeah, why would I say I'm sorry??".
Afterwards I got to thinking about this short exchange. I think views like hers are more the norm than not. I know that before I had Ryan I would view families who had a disabled child with a small amount of pity. That was then. I know better now. BUT...how can I work to change the views of other people so that they don't think what this woman and I thought? What can I do so that, when I inform someone that I have a child with Down syndrome, that they just continue the conversation as if it's a non-issue? A huge part of it is living our lives as full participants in our various communities. We won't hide.... we'll treat Ryan like we treat Kurtis... and that means regular swimming lessons, participation in church, eating out at restaurants, etc etc. In other words.... leading a regular life. People will see that individuals with Down syndrome can lead a regular life.
I remember the first time I saw someone with Down syndrome smoking. I have to confess that my first reaction was that someone should take those away from her. And then I gave myself a mental kick in the butt and realized that she is fully entitled to smoke if she so wants - she's an adult and can do what she wants - and that includes smoking. There are so many other things we can do too. Raise awareness by having pictures and stories in the papers. Have people with DS working in places where they see a lot of people (ie grocery store). And very importantly, work with the medical profession - the ones who are, unfortunately, the first line of information to prospective parents AND who unfortunately, mostly have an outdated doom-and-gloom view of people with DS without even knowing anyone with DS. And then today, I read this article.
I know I'm copying a lot of articles here, but I think they are worth the read. This speech was presented at the NDSC Conference on August 5, 2007. It is a long article, but well worth it.
by Patricia E. Bauer
Long ago, my husband and I thought we had the world figured out. We had good educations, good jobs, nice offices, even preferential parking spaces. We thought we had it made.
Then, a little more than 23 years ago, Margaret showed up, providing us with the most important learning experience of our lives. Our first order of business was trying to figure out this whole Down syndrome thing, of course, but ultimately it dawned on us that the effect of an extra chromosome here or there was the least of what we needed to learn. Over time, we came to reevaluate our core values, and to understand that much of what we had been led to believe – about what makes a family happy, what makes a life worthwhile — was misguided.
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that for the first few years of Margaret’s life we worked very, very hard to do everything we could to help Margaret become “normal.” It was only later that we realized what most families get to eventually: that “normal” wasn’t the point. Our real goal was to help Margaret be Margaret. It was only by letting go of the concept of normal that we were able to see our daughter as the delightful person that she truly is, not obscured by some burdensome word, some arbitrary social ideal that had nothing to do with any of us.
Like it or not, though, we have to admit that we as a nation have been sold this concept of “normal,” and we’ve fallen for it. Somehow, while the disability community was out of the room, the world of medicine established a diagnosable standard called “normal” and now we’re all trying as hard as we can to achieve it.
Starting this year, it is recommended by the professional organizations representing obstetricians and gynecologists in the United States and Canada that all pregnant women be offered prenatal screening for Down syndrome. All pregnant women. Prenatal screening tests are now well on their way to being standard of care. Insurance companies are covering them. And since Down syndrome is not a condition that can be repaired in utero, it must be fairly assumed that the purpose of this testing is to allow – and urge — women to terminate their pregnancies, which is in fact what has been happening about 90 percent of the time when Down syndrome is diagnosed prenatally.
Let me just underscore that, to make sure we’re all on the same page. Studies have shown that nine out of ten pregnancies in which there is a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome end in termination.
This is a painful topic to talk about, I recognize, and it’s made more painful by the very ironic fact that these recommendations have come at a time when people with disabilities have more legal protections than ever before.
Not only that, people with Down syndrome are in general healthier and having a better quality of life than at any time in history. This is the first generation to benefit from early intervention, inclusion, improved health care and better educational opportunities, and they are blowing up yesterday’s old data. Increasingly, they’re completing high school, getting jobs, living more independently. Some are driving; some are getting married. Imagine: I met a woman with Down syndrome the other day who was part of a relay team that swam the English Channel. These are people who are living full lives and making contributions to their communities.
We laugh at our house every time we see some article in the media about how people are “suffering” from Down syndrome. Margaret, my daughter, has just moved into her own apartment with a couple of her girlfriends. She’s sure not suffering. And just the other day, self-advocate Audrey Wagnon delivered the same message in her speech to the full NDSC convention. Here’s how she said it: “I’m having the best life ever!”
But – oddly — we live in a time in history in which the faces of our loved ones have come to symbolize something in the public mind that is very much at odds with our life experience. People see our family members and think what they’ve been taught to think. They think our children are tragedies. Yet we who are privileged to live with them know that, despite some of the frustrations of day-to-day existence, our lives are also filled with possibility and love and joy.
So why the disconnect between our lives and society’s vision of them? Perhaps we should start by acknowledging the obvious: prejudices, biases and fears of disability run deep in our society, nourished by years of history and reinforced among other things by ignorance, gaps in the healthcare and educational systems and negative media images.
Physicians tell me that women want prenatal screens because they are very fearful of having a child with a disability.
Among other things, they fear that the financial burden would crush them or that they wouldn’t be able to get a decent education for their child. They’re afraid, too, that they would be held accountable for having a child with a disability, and that there would be people who would blame them for failing to prevent the birth of such a child. They are afraid of stigma and ridicule. Sadly, these are not unreasonable fears.
But that’s only one piece of the puzzle we face. Here are few more:
– Puzzle piece number two. Prospective parents are suing their doctors if they don’t get a so-called “perfect baby,” leading to skyrocketing insurance costs and doctors who want to run every test possible to prevent litigation. Not long ago, a Florida jury awarded a couple more than $20 million because their doctor failed to warn them that their son would be born with a genetic syndrome.
– Puzzle piece number three. Physicians, nurses and other health care providers are giving their patients negative, outdated, biased or incomplete information about Down syndrome, depriving them of the ability to make their own informed choices based on accurate information instead of negative stereotypes.
– Puzzle piece number four. Financial demands on doctors mean they have to process more and more patients in less and less time, giving them scant opportunity to discuss tests and deliver diagnoses in a sensitive, thoughtful compassionate way. Women are reporting that these rushed interactions feel coercive.
– Puzzle piece number five. Medical schools don’t offer clinical training about people with intellectual disabilities.
– Which brings us to puzzle piece number six. Let’s not forget that prenatal diagnostics is a profitable industry, in which hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year. A substantial portion of that cash flow swells the accounts of the obstetricians and gynecologists who see pregnant women. By contrast, I should point out, the amount of money spent on research into treatments and processes to improve the lives of people with Down syndrome is minimal at best.
All these factors, I’m sorry to say, have combined to create an atmosphere in which there is a growing presumption that pregnant women should be tested for Down syndrome – a presumption, stoked by ignorance and stereotypes, that children like ours are expendable, that children like ours are without value, and that children like ours impose an unwanted cost on society. Somehow, without our knowledge or participation, a cost-benefit analysis has been applied to our children and they aren’t measuring up.
You may be wondering: How did we ever get to this point?
For the purposes of this conversation, let’s start back in the ‘50s. Most of you won’t remember it, but people with disabilities then had not been granted the right to go to public school. Doctors didn’t think that people with intellectual disabilities were capable of learning, and routinely recommended that they be sent away to institutions. During the ’50s in this country, an estimated half a million children were institutionalized, often under the most abusive and degrading conditions.
So when a French geneticist named Jerome Lejeune discovered the extra 21st chromosome that causes Down syndrome in the late ’50s, his discovery caused many to hope that treatments would soon be found. As you of course know, that didn’t happen. A far more straightforward task, from a scientific point of view, was the development of tests that could be used for prenatal diagnostics. Those tests really took off after abortion was legalized in 1973.
Doctors and scientists took a public role in recasting the definition of healthy fetuses and legitimate abortions, and what were called “therapeutic” abortions came to be regarded as a legitimate and desirable way to prevent or eliminate Down syndrome. It was in some ways just an accident of history that these so-called therapeutic abortions became well entrenched before our society was able to see what individuals with Down syndrome, given a chance, could do.
It is, as author Michael Berube has written, a bitter paradox: even though we have barely begun to explore the ways in which we could include people with disabilities in our society, we are devoting precious time and resources to developing better ways of spotting and eliminating these people before they are born.
Particularly troubling is the fact that this shift – to preventing Down syndrome by attempting to prevent the births of children who have it – was largely engineered by members of the healing professions, the very people who are charged with the responsibility of protecting vulnerable populations.
So now we are left with a harsh reality indeed. The implicit message the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists seems to be sending is this: even though racial, cultural and ethnic diversity are valued and supported in our society, genetic diversity is not. It seems that it’s more important to be “normal” than to be “human.” Or maybe we should view this as less a philosophical discussion than a pragmatic one. For OB/GYN’s, it’s better for business to deliver only babies that the medical profession calls “good outcomes.”
Somehow, along the way, the professional organization representing these doctors has failed to notice that they have embarked upon the elimination of an entire class of people who have a history of oppression, discrimination and exclusion.
I know we empathize with today’s young parents. Their finances are limited. They have grown up in an era of fear, taught to be afraid of strangers and wary of the strange. In the obstetrician’s office they trade their fears for the illusion of control — but in the process they are giving away much of what defines America at its best: a society that assumes responsibility for those who are vulnerable, a society that accepts those who are different, a society marked by generosity, liberty and freedom of thought.
These may sound like abstract concepts, but they’re not. The consequences of all these uninformed individual decisions, made in the privacy of the obstetrician’s office, are being played out before our eyes every day. We see them when our family members are the subject of unwanted stares. When people talk about how someone “had” to get rid of a pregnancy because it wasn’t perfect. When people tell us that special ed kids “cost too much.” When people ask us, sometimes in ways that seem unfriendly, whether we had “the test.” Or even why we didn’t have “the test.” When medical professionals look at our beloved children and say “that shouldn’t have happened.”
Let’s face it: people with Down syndrome have a catastrophic PR problem. The doom and gloom talk has gone largely unchallenged for far too long.
It gives me great pain to tell you all this, because I know you love your family members as much as my husband and my son and I love Margaret. I know, too, that you share our vision that people with Down syndrome are valued, contributing and vibrant members of our families and our communities.
We come together at reunions like these to affirm the value of our family members’ lives, secure in the knowledge that their extra chromosome is NOT the most important thing about them. They belong; they dream big dreams; they contribute; they deserve respect. What makes their lives difficult is not their genetic makeup; it’s the uninformed attitudes of others.
We know this, of course, but it’s not enough for us to share the message with one another. We need to put it out where all the world can see.
Let’s start with what we can do as individuals. As I’ve gone around the conference, I’ve heard about some great things that people are doing in their own communities. Things like:
–Helping to educate the doctors and genetic counselors in their area by visiting their classes or professional meetings.
–Building relationships with hospitals, and talking with families who have a fresh diagnosis.
– Monitoring their local news media, and holding them accountable for their coverage and their use of language about people with disabilities.
These are great steps, but let’s not stop there. Let’s dream even bigger.
It’s time for us to insist that our organizations advocate forcefully on behalf of people with Down syndrome in ways that are targeted to reach decision-makers, to reach medical professionals, and of course to reach the general public. Here are some of the things we need to do.
1. We need to provide disability awareness training and accurate information directly to obstetricians, to gynecologists, and to the professionals who assist them. They need to hear the nuanced, compassionate message that is at the core of diversity and human rights: all people have value and dignity and are worthy of celebration. We’ve told them this nicely. Now perhaps it’s time to turn up the volume.
2. We need to put out lots and lots of well-designed materials that will teach doctors how to discuss prenatal screening and diagnoses with their patients. Senators Kennedy and Brownback have recently reintroduced their bill on this topic. Whether it’s this bill or another one, we need to find a way for doctors to get the materials they need.
3. We need to improve medical school curriculums, which include almost nothing about children with disabilities.
4. We need to hold publishers accountable for the editorial content of their pregnancy handbooks. Take a look in your local bookstore, and notice what those books say about our young people. If they carry anything at all, it’s more than likely a cold, clinical list of symptoms and diagnoses, guaranteed to strike fear in the heart of any pregnant woman. We must change this.
5. We need to use technology to convey our message. Where does your average 20-or 30-something look for medical information? Right. The Internet. If we truly want to help people make informed decisions, we need to get involved in the Internet in a big way, both in print and in video. Our content needs to be useful and modern.
6. We need to enable prospective parents to see that people with disabilities live good lives, and that they have warm, sustaining relationships with their families and friends. Presently, that information is only coming to them anecdotally, if at all. Imagine how different things would be if people could be referred to a website that allowed them to click on videos that would show them footage of people with Down syndrome, of all ages and ability levels, going through their daily lives. America’s teenagers are communicating actively through Youtube – why shouldn’t we?
7. We need to speak up to challenge the old stereotypes about our family members and ourselves. We’re not victims. We’re not heroes. We’re just ordinary people sharing slightly extraordinary lives with people we love and who love us.
I talked earlier about people who sometimes ask us about whether we had “the test.” Here’s what I think they really want to know. Did you, or would you, choose this person to be in your family? Let me tell you my answer to that question.
When my husband and I decided to have children, we were kids. (Okay, we were in our early 30s. But viewed from a distance, that sure looks young now!) Sure, we had lots of education, degrees and experiences, but there was a lot we didn’t know:
– We didn’t know what it meant to be a parent.
– We didn’t know that there was no such a thing as normal.
– And we sure didn’t know that that it was possible to have a happy, thriving, loving family with a child who was not the same as everybody else’s.
Fortunately for us, we have learned a thing or two at the University of Margaret since then. We learned
– No child is “normal” — and neither are we;
– We, like all parents, need to get over the notion of our children meeting some arbitrary standards of perfection that we couldn’t possibly achieve ourselves; and
– We choose our children, and each other, over and over, every day of our lives.
In short, my husband and I have been privileged to share our lives with someone who is a constant reminder of some essential truths: the importance of family, the strength of unconditional love, the dignity and value of vulnerable people, and the fact that IQ points are not a good predictor of personal happiness or quality of life.
As we all ponder how to carry these messages to the outside world, as we get ready to leave the safe haven of our reunion today, let’s remember that we are all stronger together than we are separately.
But talking among ourselves, while important, won’t get the message out. We have to communicate directly with those not in this room.
A couple of years ago, a newspaper running a piece I’d written asked for a family photo, including Margaret. I gulped, feeling exposed, and called my husband to ask his thoughts. He said, “Stand tall; run the picture.” We did.
That is my message to all of us: Stand tall; get out the message.
People will listen.
We can do it.