By: Louise Rita Contino
Safia Elizabeth Al-Rawi is twenty-six years old. She spent her childhood with her mother and older brother in the suburbs of Bergen County, New Jersey, and now lives in the Prospects Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. She graduated two years ago from Kingsborough Community College with an associate’s degree and currently works part-time as an office assistant near Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan at SalesForce, a cloud computing company that makes one the most widely used customer relationship management products.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, she volunteers at GiGi’s Playhouse NYC in Harlem to help young children with learning disabilities improve their literacy skills. She is an active member of a social group at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), and her favorite haunts in New York City are the Highline, Museum Mile, the Theater District, the Statue of Liberty and Prospect Park. Her favorite food is sushi, and the thing that makes her happiest is singing and dancing to her top playlists on Spotify. She has long blonde hair and big, blue eyes.
She also has Down syndrome.
Down syndrome manifests uniquely in each individual. Any person with Down syndrome will possess some or all of the common characteristics, but the extent to which they exhibit these traits is determined by the severity of the impact Trisomy 21 has on the individual’s development.
Ms. Al-Rawi falls on the higher-functioning end of the Down syndrome spectrum. Her accomplishments, though quite ordinary in scope, are extraordinary because they defy the misassumptions society projects about the quality of life that people with Down syndrome are capable of achieving. She, like so many other people with developmental delays, is quite capable of realizing the same dreams that the average person yearns for, such as going to college or getting married. Yet people underestimate her.
“I never even knew I had Down syndrome”, Ms. Al-Rawi tells me as we sit down for coffee in the JCC lobby on a sunny Friday after her social group, “until my mom told me about it when I was little. I basically learned about it as a kid, and I didn’t know what it meant back then, but I feel like now, particularly around how I act, I understand what Down syndrome means to other people.”
Her disability does not hold her back. Societal perceptions and stigmas have presented her with a lifetime of adversity, and she has overcome each and every barrier. She describes herself as determined, organized and ambitious.
Not many people with Down syndrome get to go to college. …Before I got into the AHRC program at Kingsborough Community College [an adaptive college program for adults with intellectual disabilities] in Brooklyn I wasn’t so sure I would ever be able to go to college, but after I got in, I realized that I could do it. The first year wasn’t the best year, but after that it got a lot better. I was at the college for three years, and I really loved the structure. I was feeling very outgoing and like I could do a lot of different things.
When asked how she reacts when people say something like, “oh, people with Down syndrome, they can’t go to college,” she replied,
”I think that is really very rude and very mean. Those kind of people that think that way, they don’t really get it. They don’t really pay attention to people like me, they just don’t care. They don’t do stuff like that to me in particular, but I do see it, and, I mean, it’s just not right.”
It’s true. People don’t usually treat Ms. Al-Rawi as a defeated individual. They can’t. She’s too confident. When she encounters condescension, she just ignores it and moves on. She is well-liked by her peers and overall had an enriching experience during her years at Kingsborough.
Being with the other students in my classes who didn’t have disabilities was really cool. I felt like they were very helpful. Sometimes the professors would give instructions or say something that I didn’t quite understand, and I could ask the other students, “excuse me, what was that?” and they would explain.
I didn’t feel like I was treated differently because I had a disability, but…
…I did really want to be Homecoming Queen, but I couldn’t because I wasn’t eligible. I wasn’t registered like a regular student, but instead I was in the AHRC program and that disqualified me from running for Homecoming Queen. It felt like they wouldn’t accept us in a way. I was really more frustrated than disappointed. I wanted it so bad, but I couldn’t get it.
However, Ms. Al-Rawi did not let this stop her from having a full experience while at college—including the fun of extracurricular activities. She was Vice President of the Education Club and became very involved in the creative arts, particularly in film & theater studies, which afforded her the time and training needed to hone her favorite hobby: writing movie plots, particularly sequels to her favorite films and books.
I really like [scripting]. I get to see the characters and their feelings, the feelings within the characters. I like to see how the characters’ feelings influence the plot. I like to be able to break it all down and see how it all fits back together.
Sometimes it is easier for me to understand how someone is feeling in a script than in real life, but this is a back and forth.
When asked about whether or not she felt that she was able to make meaningful friendships with people at Kingsborough beyond her peers from AHRC, the disability services nonprofit organization that organizes her adaptive college program, she replied,
I didn’t get to spend that much time hanging out with them. [For example], at lunch time I never got to sit with the other regular kids because I had to sit with everybody from my program. Those were the rules. I don’t know if that was a good thing or not, but it would have been nice if we were sitting with other people. Most of the time it was fun because it meant we got to play Uno, but at times I wish I could have been with other people. I felt like [the people from my program] weren’t very open minded, as in they were not adventurous enough. Maybe they were open minded—I don’t know—but I kind of feel like it was not enough.
…It would have been nice to at least have the choice to spread out a little.
I felt a little stuck.
After spending just a few hours with Ms. Al-Rawi, it was very evident that she is a strong self-advocate, but that only gets her as far as people are willing to listen. The thing that makes Ms. Al-Rawi saddest is when people do not acknowledge to her; in her own words,
The way to show more respect is to be more helpful. Another way of showing more respect is saying “hi” and “goodbye”.
Ms. Al-Rawi is a young woman with a complicated emotional world and many goals and dreams, just like any other average twenty something. She is very focused on achieving her goals and shared this fifteen-year plan,
In one year I plan to accomplish my goal of becoming an usher in Broadway shows. That’s something that I really want to do within the next year, starting this December right after Christmas. In five years, or probably even less than five years, I want to become a screenwriter for films in Los Angeles. I want to act in Broadway shows and movies within the next decade too. By the time I am forty I want to be married with a husband, have two kids, one girl and one boy, and live somewhere in the suburbs of New Jersey near NYC with a therapy dog. I’d like to get a small or medium Golden Retriever named Sandy.
Undoubtedly she is already working on this life vision. She takes singing and dancing classes at Daniel’s Music Foundation. and is currently a member of a theater troupe called Dream Street. in Brooklyn, which puts on two productions annually ranging from Shakespeare to Rogers & Hammerstein musicals. She also actively pursues casting calls throughout the city for roles on stage and in television and film.
She is intelligent, far more intelligent than many people stereotype her as. She is capable and she is determined. Safia sees the value in everyone and asks that the world shows the same respect back to her,
I would say that you must accept people for who they are with Down syndrome and how they are much more different than other people. Accept that they have a lot of different interests, and a lot of different things that they do, and things they want to be, and what they do as far as activities, and groups they are part of, and how they spend their lives. What they do to enjoy themselves …and what accomplishments they have made over the years is very unique.
When asked what is the one thing that her New York City community could do to be a little more accepting of Down syndrome, her reply was,
People could start being more polite and showing me that you are capable of being a good person and speaking up for me. I want people to know that people with disabilities are not trying to hurt you, we want you to be nice to us and polite to us. Actually show that you care. It doesn’t have to be friendship, but just show that you care and that you don’t think that people with disabilities are bad people.
We are the type of people who are good, and we are very helpful. We care about you.