Every year on March 21st, we recognize World Down Syndrome Day. The date is significant, as the 3/21 represents the three copies of the 21st chromosome that each person with Down syndrome has.
We celebrate this important day by launching our fundraising site for the Columbus Buddy Walk, sharing important information about Down syndrome on social media, and by “rocking our socks” – wearing fun, colorful, and mismatched socks. This special day of advocacy has become a key holiday in teaching our communities about individuals with Down syndrome and how they are capable members of society.
While I hope many people register for, or donate to, our Buddy Walk team that day, and have fun wearing their silliest socks, there is one lesson that I hope to instill in my friends, family, and social media followers that day: Alex, and all individuals with Down syndrome, can achieve great things in their lives if we are willing to appropriately support them.
Recently, I stopped at Kroger with my kids to pick up a few groceries. We had just left their final bowling practice, where they received their accolades for a great season. Alex (my son with Down syndrome) was named a Scholar Athlete (a terrific accomplishment for any high schooler, but remarkable for a student with Down syndrome), and his coach referred to him as “Most Enthusiastic” on the team. Alex was quite proud of his accomplishments, and his teammates were proud of him. It was a great way to wrap up the season.
We rushed through the grocery store, still beaming from the fun we had at bowling. The kids scattered about and collected the items they needed: some poster board for an upcoming project, a bottle of Wite-Out, a bag of pretzels. While I was looking for an item in one of the frozen food aisles, Alex went ahead to the next aisle to find his favorite chicken strips. A few moments later, I followed after him, and I was met by another shopper at the end of the aisle. She began frantically waving at me, then pointing down the aisle where Alex was shopping. I looked at her, curiously, trying to figure out what she was trying to tell me (as masks make these situations a bit more difficult!).
Then, it occurred to me: she thought I had lost Alex, and she was trying to help me find him.
My heart sank and I tried to explain. “Oh…um, no, he’s fine…but thanks!” I felt my face flush as I hurried to catch up with Alex as he happily shopped for his chicken.
We went from one big high (earning an academic honor) to a major low (a stranger thinking my teenage son with Down syndrome was lost in the grocery store, like a toddler) in such a short period of time. I suppose by now I should be used to these incidents, but they never fail to wreck me. I know that the lady in the grocery store meant well, and had no idea she upset me, but she truly seemed to be worried that my teenage son was lost solely based on the fact that he has Down syndrome.
That sinking feeling stayed with me for hours. I wasn’t able to shake it and move on. How can I expect our community to believe in his abilities to function as a contributing member of society when they don’t think he can independently maneuver the aisles of the grocery store?
This has been the narrative for so many years, though, hasn’t it? People with Down syndrome have been considered inferior to the rest of us. We describe them as “angels” who are sweet and innocent and never unhappy. This mindset leads us to think that these individuals are unable to do the same things that we do: succeed in school, go to college, have a job, get married, live independently. Of course, not everyone with Down syndrome will do these things, just like not everyone without Down syndrome will do them.
My wish for #WDSD2021 is for people to see the abilities of these individuals, and find ways to support them. I want you to feel empowered to speak out when you see that people with Down syndrome are left out of classrooms, employment, and group settings. We need to change the narrative that has stomped on the potential of so many of these individuals. The Down syndrome community is already advocating for these changes, but we need our peers to join us in order to amplify this message on World Down Syndrome Day and everyday.
World Down Syndrome Day is the perfect time to work on switching this harmful narrative. While you rock your socks on 3/21, try to also identify at least one way you can support your community members who have Down syndrome.
Alex will certainly appreciate your efforts…and so will I.