Down Syndrome Awareness Month by Carey and Trevor McLaughlin
Down Syndrome Awareness Month is during the month of October. Being curious, I did a quick internet search of Awareness themes in October and it brought up no less than thirteen themes ranging from National Pizza Month to Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This might make people a little cynical that perhaps this awareness saturation lessens its impact on people. On the contrary, I feel that the more awareness is raised about everything, the better until people are no longer sidelined and hurting. Is this an idealized, utopian view of things? Maybe, but why not aim high?
As Brene Brown put it, “everyone has a story or a struggle that will break your heart. And, if we’re really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring us to our knees.” So, in my opinion, awareness can do the world a lot of good. If any awareness month inspires just one person to get a mammogram or think twice about bullying or befriend a person with Down syndrome, then it is worth it. Because change happens one person at a time.
A friend of my oldest daughter recently trained to become an Emergency Medical Technician in another state. I was happy to hear that during her training, they discussed treating people with developmental disabilities and some of the issues that might make assisting them challenging (fear of the loud sirens or lights, or different means of communication such as sign language or iPad, etc.) It reminded me of a tragic case of a man in Colorado, Brady Mistic, who is deaf and uses sign language to communicate, and who cannot read lips nor vocalize many words. He was arrested and jailed for running a stop sign because he was thought to be resisting arrest, but actually just couldn’t hear the officers’ commands.
Police officers are human and just trying to do their jobs under difficult and dangerous circumstances every day. But they might not be aware of the needs of people with disabilities. They are in daily situations that put them in harm’s way and have to make split second decisions. But some awareness might stop future situations like Brady Mistik’s.
The Arc of Monroe in Rochester recently held an event called Better Together: A discussion between law enforcement and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The goal was to better understand both people with disabilities and for the officers’ difficult situations to also be understood as they face chaotic and tense situations every single day.
We are fortunate to have very active advocacy groups in our area that facilitate conversations like this one and a police department willing to participate, listen and learn. But other places in our country and world might not have these discussions and maybe an awareness month will help people stay safe.
Down syndrome awareness month is also a time for us to highlight and celebrate the abilities of people with Down syndrome, rather than their disabilities. There is much to be celebrated both big and small. Big things like the ADA passing in 1990 and the opening of the first GiGi’s Playhouse were monumental, but people with Down syndrome accomplish amazing things every day, like graduating high school and working in their community. GiGi’s Playhouse celebrates all accomplishments, big and small. Best of All is a part of the fabric of every GiGi’s Playhouse location. It is a daily challenge to do a little better than you did the day before and we incorporate it into all of our programs from the youngest to the oldest participants. Some examples are standing just one second longer, reading just one more word, learning one new number, taking just one more step.
Down syndrome awareness month is about not just awareness but also acceptance. Because ultimately, awareness is important but acceptance is truly the goal. GiGi’s Playhouse challenges people this month to “take the “I Accept You” pledge. You’ll become a part of #GenerationG, an army of change-makers set on making the world a kinder, better place for all people. And we’ll ask you to proudly show your commitment by drawing a “G” in a heart on your hand, and sharing it on all your social media channels!” Awareness fosters acceptance, acceptance fosters inclusion, and inclusion offers opportunities for people with Down syndrome.
Have empathy for your fellow humans. Awareness months help people become more empathetic towards others. Life can be hard. Sometimes it seems like things just don’t improve. The world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows for our loved ones with Down syndrome and other people with disabilities. Yes, we have made tremendous strides toward inclusion in society for people with Down syndrome: many people with Down syndrome have jobs and are featured as models in magazines and catalogs, but there is always further to go. However, let’s “look on the bright side” as my daughter Claire loves to say. We have come far in the awareness and acceptance of our loved ones with Down Syndrome.
In the words of Van Gogh: “Many people seem to think it foolish, even superstitious, to believe that the world could still change for the better. And it is true that in winter it is sometimes so bitingly cold that one is tempted to say, ‘What do I care if there is a summer; its warmth is no help to me now.’ Yes, evil often seems to surpass good. But then, in spite of us, and without our permission, there comes, at last, an end to the bitter frosts. One morning the wind turns, and there is a thaw. And so I must still have hope.”