I saw a print ad in a magazine from the National Down Syndrome Society. There was a picture of a man holding an oboe, and a phrase saying something like "I am the face of Down syndrome." This person apparently plays six instruments and has been on Oprah.
I have no doubt that many people with Down Syndrome are very high-functioning. Some, like the man pictured, are much higher-functioning than some people with normal genomes.
But what is this ad trying to tell us? People with Down syndrome have the same abilities as you and me? Obviously, most do not, so I assume that's not it. I'm guessing the message is supposed to be something like this: respect people with Down syndrome, because some of them have higher cognitive abilities than you think.
Isn't that exactly the message that such a society should not send? What about people with Down syndrome who are not as high-functioning? Should we not respect them? What about the ones who are lower-functioning than most people realize, or who are not as happy or sweet as people assume the cognitively disabled are? What about people with a genetic disorder that is always on the low-functioning end? Are they worthy of respect? This ad has given us no reason to think so. Indeed, it reinforces the message that people are valuable insofar as they have cognitive abilities.
I would hope such a national organization would emphasize that people who are not high-functioning are also valuable. We should value people with Down syndrome not because some of them are high-functioning, but because a person's worth is not directly correlated to her intellectual ability. Even low-functioning people are valuable - they feel and think and emote and relate and form personal connections and have beliefs and desires. We value them even if they cannot play any instruments at all.
UPDATE: Found the ad. Got it a bit wrong, but the point still stands. The picture is of a guy with Down syndrome in Indiana Jones-ish garb, and the text says: "Sujeet Desai, THE TRAVELER. I play six instruments. I've visited eleven countries. I've traveled to thirty-two states, and been hnored by the President of Singapore. I've met Oprah, been featured in Time magazine, and performed on the clarinet before 14,000 people. I have Down syndrome and this is my great story. Do you have a story? Tell us at ndss.org/stories."
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