On May 16, GiGi's Playhouse opened its 54th Down syndrome achievement center in Sacramento, California, providing free, purposeful programs for individuals of all ages and their families. Like many centers throughout the country, including the Fort Wayne location, the front windows are adorned with pictures of beautiful children with Down syndrome, encouraging the community to be kind and accepting.
Only six days after the grand opening, vandals defaced the stunning welcome windows at the Sacramento location with hate speech – the horrific r-word plastered next to a child's face. Local authorities labeled it exactly what it is – a hate crime.
While this happened across the country, I unfortunately know it can happen anywhere. In fact, just two years ago, in our own state, several football players were investigated for assaulting and bullying a 15-year-old team manager who has Down syndrome.
Every single day, individuals with Down syndrome face limited acceptance. People with Down syndrome wear their diagnoses on their face, and as we've seen time and time again, they are often subjected to bullying, prejudice and cruelty.
Even in 2021, individuals with Down syndrome are not consistently accepted and treated as equals.
Individuals with Down syndrome are often denied the chance of receiving organ transplants. Children with Down syndrome are often segregated from their peers in classrooms. Offensive slurs are still tolerated in our society as many individuals face little consequence after uttering them.
It's time for our world to change the way it views Down syndrome. It's time to teach our children about acceptance, and it starts with education.
Learn more about Down syndrome and use person-first language: Down syndrome (yes, the lower-case “s” is correct) is a genetic disorder whereby a child is born with an extra copy of their 21st chromosome (hence its other name, Trisomy 21).
There are 450,000 individuals with Down syndrome in the United States; one in 691 live births results in a Down syndrome diagnosis.
When explaining the diagnosis to children, it's important to share that it is not a disease, and it is not something you can catch. Explain that we have 46 chromosomes, and an individual with Down syndrome has 47 chromosomes, giving them special gifts and characteristics.
When referring to an Individual with Down syndrome, we use person-first language and say just that – an individual with Down syndrome – not “a Downs child.” Individuals happen to have Down syndrome and it does not define who they are.
We need to make sure we focus on the individual and not the diagnosis.
We also do not say that people suffer from Down syndrome; they just have it, like you might have brown eyes.
Challenge misconceptions: The Global Down Syndrome Foundation lists on its website a number of misconceptions and the reality about people with Down syndrome, including:
Misconception: Only older parents have children with Down syndrome.
Reality: According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80% of children who have Down syndrome are born to women younger than 35.
Misconception: Adults with Down syndrome cannot live independently or hold jobs.
Reality: As we are seeing in our community and encourage at GiGi's, many adults with Down syndrome are living independently, pursuing career training and employment.
Misconception: People with Down syndrome are always happy.
Reality: Everyone has their own feelings and moods that change each day. No one should expect an individual to be happy all the time.
We may not realize the misconceptions we might hold from outdated societal norms and expectations. To be truly accepting, we must confront these fallacies.
Hire someone with Down syndrome: As we challenge myths, we have an opportunity to act.
This year, in honor of World Down Syndrome Day, singer and musician Sting created a new track called “The Hiring Chain,” which focuses on the importance of hiring individuals with Down syndrome. The song's video demonstrates the impact of how, as more employers hire individuals with Down syndrome, customers and other businesses notice and follow suit as they have positive experiences.
I encourage our community to start our own “Hiring Chain” and hire adults with Down syndrome for meaningful employment opportunities here in Fort Wayne.
Never underestimate an individual with Down syndrome: As we look to grow acceptance and opportunities, it's important to believe that individuals with Down syndrome can achieve anything they set out to achieve. Celebrate the wins of individuals in our community, instead of focusing on what they can't do.
As Fort Wayne works to be an inclusive community for all individuals, I ask you to help build a more accepting community for individuals with Down syndrome.
Mandy Drakeford is executive director of GiGi's Playhouse Fort Wayne.