Unless we as parents and adults screw it up.
Have you heard the saying everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten?
I think kindergartners this year, right now, in 2012, know more than most of us adults.
There are now simple blood tests developed that could possibly eliminate people who have one extra chromosome detected early in the pregnancy. Last week the disability community was in an uproar over a news story about a family who sued their hospital for not prenatally diagnosing their now four year old daughter with Down syndrome, claiming if they had known they would have aborted. The couple won, and received almost 3 million dollars.
If you spend any time watching or reading the news, it would not be a stretch to conclude that there is a part of our population; people who walk back and forth to the bus stop for work everyday, people who buy groceries at Whole Foods, who check the latest sports scores on their phones, and take their kids to the park to swing, who want to decide what kids they should parent. There are, sadly, people who do not value a life, if the life includes Down syndrome.
But thankfully, contrary to my upbringing, arguably due to mere time and place in history, typically-developing kids now days learn early on about individuals with special needs. They know the word “retard,” still used in excess in our culture, is not to be shrugged off as lazy, habitual slang, but rather avoided because it is highly offensive and hurtful. At the age of five, most kindergartners realize that differences in people make the world more interesting.
I, unfortunately, was forced to learn these lessons definitively later in life after the birth of my child with Down syndrome.
“How many of you came to school this morning wearing shoes?” I ask my daughter Polly’s class of 30 kindergartners, and watch 30 hands shoot up into the air.
“I am wearing shoes!” “I have on tennis shoes.” “I’m wearing brown boots.” “I’m wearing black shoes.” The children are thrilled with my question and puffed up in their answers. I am careful to ask Polly, who is sitting nicely on her carpet square, about her shoes, too. “My shoes are black and pink, Mom,” she declares loud enough for her classmates to hear.
After I’ve gotten the kids’ attention with an exciting topic like shoes, I transition to the book I came to read called My Friend Isabelle, by Eliza Woloson, a fun story about a friendship between a boy named Charlie and a girl named Isabelle. Throughout their play-date, Charlie talks about how he and Isabelle are alike and different. “I run fast. Isabelle takes her time. We drink apple juice and eat Cheerios at the little red table and chairs.”
Isabelle and Polly have something in common. They both have Down syndrome.
When a person playfully punches a friend in the shoulder and says, “You are such a retard,” he is referring to people like Isabelle and Polly, and 400,000 other individuals living with Down syndrome in the United States today.
According to the National Down Syndrome Society (www.ndss.org), Down syndrome is the most common chromosomal anomaly. It occurs when some or all of a person’s cells have an extra full or partial copy of chromosome 21. One in every 691 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome.
Wednesday, March 21st is World Down Syndrome Day. The movement, existing now for seven years, has a mission to create a single global voice advocating for the rights, inclusion, and well being of people with Down syndrome all over the world (www.worlddownsyndromeday.org). Participating countries include the United States, Canada, Brazil, Columbia, Austria, Finland, France, Ireland, Turkey, and many more.
In thinking about ways that I, a busy wife, mother, and writer, could help raise awareness about World Down Syndrome Day, my mind immediately went to Polly’s kindergarten class. Perhaps more adults will grasp concepts like inclusion, respect, and omitting derogatory terms like “retard” if they follow the lead of their children?
After reading the book and talking about shoes, I attempt to provide a kindergarten appropriate definition of Down syndrome adapted from the book We’ll Paint The Octopus Red by Stephanie Stuve-Bordeen. “Children with Down syndrome are born with one more chromosome than the rest of us. Chromosomes are like thin, little strings inside us that are kind of like directions for our bodies. These directions tell things about us, like how tall we will be, if we will be good at tennis, or how big our noses will grow. When a person has one more chromosome, the directions get a little confused. That’s why kids with Down syndrome may look a little different or have a harder time trying to learn.”
The children raise their hands, this time asking thoughtful, honest questions, and I am amazed by the ease of our discussion. Together we note differences among us all. We nod in agreement that different doesn’t mean bad, and that being a good friend is always a good choice. These concepts are easily digested by this audience, like slurping up pineapple-strawberry juice through a thin straw.
There isn’t much time for my presentation, but I give each kid a chance to tell me about their shoes. “Mine are glittery.” “I have a basketball on mine.” “One of my shoes has a hole in the bottom.” Without realizing it, this group of scraggly-haired, inquisitive, fidgety five-year-olds have surmised that they, like their shoes, are all alike and different at the same time.
I’ve been speaking to classes about kids with special needs for years, but this presentation is meaningful to me, because my daughter is the only child in her class, actually in the whole school, who has Down syndrome.
If Polly had been born in a different generation, she very well could have been sent off to an institution to live out her days secluded and dejected. If God had given her to a different family, maybe she wouldn’t even exist. Instead, she is an active, loving member of our family. She’s known in our community, church, and elementary school as the sweet kid who makes friends easily, loves elephants and Angelina Ballerina. By simply being themselves, she and her little sister Evangeline break stereotypes about Down syndrome that have plagued our culture for years.
By now, more than half way through their kindergarten year, the class knows Polly well. She could arguably be called many things, stubborn, cute, compassionate, fussy, fun, silly, and picky and I would agree. “Yep, you know Polly.” But there is a word these children will not use to describe my happy, thoughtful, and full of life daughter that probably would have been used more readily in years past: retarded.
And for that reason alone, I will continue to educate those around me.
And for that reason alone, I will be grateful.
Do me a favor for Polly, and for kids like her all over the word. Learn from your children. Stop using the r- word. Replace it with the word respect.
World Down Syndrome Day challenge: Share this post, or my video, or the National Down Syndrome Society website, or the World Down Syndrome Day website. Share something positive about Down syndrome. Please, share the love.