Sunday, 17 February 2013

Disabled babies: The New Chihauhuas?

 In the last few years, there has been a huge trend emerging for actors and models with Down’s syndrome and “disability” storylines in popular shows. In fact, if you look around, Down’s syndrome is everywhere at the moment.

It started at the end of 2011 when, in the US, Target chose a 6-year old boy called Ryan to feature in their new advertising campaign (you can see the advert and read a nice little article from Time Magazine here: Target handled it brilliantly, simply because they didn’t handle it at all- there was no press release, no trite “special clothes for special people” slogan, just a cute little boy lined up with a load of other cute kids. Then over in the UK, Taya Kennedy,
 were all signed up by major modelling agencies, with the companies using them prominently ranging from small, organic clothing company Frugi Organic Clothing, to huge companies like M&S, Next, and Jojo Maman Bebe.

Television and radio got in on it too- Glee had two actresses with Down syndrome in significant roles (although one was killed off) and then in the UK, Upstairs Downstairs, Eastenders and even The Archers have run storylines about Down syndrome. Just last week Call the Midwife centred on the impact on a family whose child is born with spina bifida. A casting website called Star Now recently ran an ad reading, “Wanted: Actors (male) with Down syndrome”. If this fashion keeps up, I’m going to have to buy a great big designer handbag to carry Iggy around in.

So what’s my point? Honestly, I’m in two minds about the whole trend. Part of me is concerned that it is just a cynical fashion, and that in six months some other “difference”, Tourette’s, maybe will be all the rage, or alopecia. I feel as though there’s some concept group at BBC HQ jumping up and down waving and saying “look! We’ve got one over here! And look! Look how inclusive we are, there’s one here too!!” in the same way that towards election time all the major parties scrabble to prove that they’ve got decent reserves of lesbians, disabilities and ethnic minorities before polling starts.

That said, I do think this is a move in the right direction- getting these conditions in the public eye is the first step, once they’re there we can tackle the issues of how they are portrayed. The thing I’ve found in the last year is that the majority of people actually have no idea what Down syndrome is, which makes it more intimidating, so consider this a public service bulletin. Pay attention, here comes the science part:

The DNA of a normal person is composed of 21 pairs of Chromosomes, totalling 42 individual chromosomes which carry all the genetic information that determines what a person looks like, how naturally intelligent they are, their gender etc. In Down syndrome the 21st pair has an extra copy- the official name for the condition is “Trisomy 21” so, a total of 43 chromosomes in all[1]. That’s it. No virus, no disease, just a little extra DNA. It’s why it’s impossible to predict what an individual with the condition will be capable of, in exactly the same way that you can’t look at an ordinary newborn’s DNA and know whether they’ll be a lawyer or a marathon runner. The aptitudes of the child are still inherited from their parents, and their intellect varies just as it does in “normal” children. You can set very loose parameters “they’ll learn to walk, they’ll be able to read” just as you can for any child and you can even give a very vague time frame, but there is absolutely no hard and fast rule. Put bluntly, Iggy is a mutant, a very cute, not very coordinated mutant.

In the real world, this is what the X-men look like.
So, now that we’ve established that DS is simply genetic information, just like hair colour or height, perhaps it’ll be easier to understand why I object to the current trend for “tackling” the issue.
The problem with tokenism is that, far from making differences less of an issue, it actually isolates them. All of the programs I’ve mentioned above, with the notable exception of Glee have used these actors in storylines specifically centred on their disabilities. Imagine a world where the only time black people were allowed to appear on TV was in a story about how hard it is to be black, or where tall people only ever featured in “hard hitting dramas” about the persecution of tall people. It would be weird.
Dexter would just be a show about a guy trying to overcome his hair colour.

What I would really love to see is a storyline where the actor happened to have DS, but in which the storyline had nothing to do with their condition- can you imagine how people’s own prejudices would be tested if a story about theft, or sexual harassment showed someone with DS in a less than favourable light? Because that’s the point; once you accept that people with DS are just wired a little differently you can start to actually treat them as equals. You can accept that they are just as capable of disliking people, of being rude or unkind or inappropriate and stop making excuses for it.

There is only one thing about having a child with Down syndrome that drives me up the wall, and it has nothing to do with Iggy. 

I wish well meaning people would stop being so bloody sensitive. 

The Archers have been covering this issue brilliantly- the way they’re writing the story of Bethany illustrates very well how difficult it is to know how to react to news of a child with a chromosomal abnormality. I completely understand how hard it must be for the recipient of the news, but sometimes the hardest part of telling people is the guilt you feel afterwards for making them uncomfortable. At home, Iggy’s DS is no more of an “issue” than Gwen’s gigantic feet.[2]  Parents of “special needs” children don’t feel like they’ve been short changed in any way- I still think my kid is better, and cuter, and nicer than anyone else’s, and I don’t feel sad or jealous when I look at normal babies. However, on the odd occasion that I have tried to make a joke on the subject, it has been met with stunned silence followed by uncomfortable laughter. Once, after telling a couple of ladies about Iggy’s condition I tried to break up the awkward silence that followed with the quip “It could have been worse, she could have been ginger”. It didn’t go down well. I think they might have thought I was genuinely saying that to have red hair is worse than to have Down syndrome.

The point I was making is that all kids, whoever they are, get picked on at some point. I don’t know anyone who wasn’t teased about something at school or uni. It’s not pleasant for anyone, but it is a natural part of growing up and it’s wrong to say that picking on someone for DS is somehow worse than teasing someone about big feet. It is something that actually makes them more like other children and it is far more isolating to put someone on a pedestal and say that you can’t treat their condition lightly than it is to afford them the same level of camaraderie and banter that you would an “ordinary” child. Watching Gwen with her sister has been amazing, because of course, at 2 and a half, she doesn’t understand that her sister is different, so she’s just as mean to her as she is to all the other kids. I don’t want anyone being mean to my children, but if they are going to, I wish they’d be mean to them both equally.

The fact that children with disabilities are out of the asylums and onto the TV screen is great. But if we’re only putting them out there to shine a spotlight on their differences, they’d be better off at home. Isolde, just like any other child with Trisomy 21 has 42 totally normal chromosomes in addition to her extra “special” one. That’s more than enough normal to cancel out her stumpy arms and gappy toes. If everyone could just relax a little it would be more comfortable for everyone, and I wouldn’t have to hear the sharp intake of breath every time someone overheard me call her Spackerdoodle.

Admit it. You just did it didn’t you?

[1] Ha! My kid’s got more chromosomes than your kid.
[2] Seriously, they’re huge.

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