Anna Dellinger, Features Editor
Many people are familiar with the month of October and its many shades of pink bringing awareness to breast cancer. However, most people would not recognize the blue and yellow ribbon bringing awareness to Down Syndrome in this same month of October.
Nearly one in 700 babies are born with Down Syndrome in the United States, about 6,000 each year, according to the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS).
While many people would probably recognize a person as having Down Syndrome, most would probably not know all that it entails. Assistant Professor of Special Education Liz Justice has worked with at least ten students with Down Syndrome in the past 20 years.
“I don’t think that [most people] have a true picture of it,” Justice said.
“I think they might recognize some general characteristics of Down Syndrome but I don’t know that they fully grasp what difficulties the chromosome disorder causes for students.”
Down Syndrome is the most common chromosomal disorder. It occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21. This additional genetic material alters the course of development and causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome, according to the NDSS.
“…People know the name and recognize it’s out there, but they don’t have a lot of education about it or experience with it,” Justice said.
The extra copy of chromosomes causes common physical characteristics of Down Syndrome. These can include facial features such as an upward slant to the eyes, extra space between the ring finger and pinky finger, shorter fingers, small stature and low muscle tone. There are several different forms of Down Syndrome, and some have stronger characteristics than others.
Many of those with Down Syndrome face an increased risk of congenital heart defects, respiratory and hearing problems, with some requiring surgery.
Down Syndrome is also considered an intellectual disability, which should be distinguished from a learning disability. With a learning disability, a student has average or above average intelligence, but struggles to retain information. One example of a learning disability would be dyslexia.
With an intellectual disability, students may have adapted behavior issues, intellectual delays or a lower IQ. All children with down syndrome have an intellectual disability, but not all have the same level. One of the effects of Down Syndrome is having an intellectual delay.
Being different in any way can make it hard to fit in – this is especially true in the case of those with disabilities. The families of those with Down Syndrome can face great difficulties in ensuring the success of their child.
“[One great difficulty is] finding ways to include them in schools, in extracurricular activities, just advocating for equality for their child and encouraging them and pushing them to reach for the stars… versus saying ‘oh, they have down syndrome’ and not having as high of expectations as we should,” Justice said.
Many of those with Down Syndrome go to school, work jobs and are key parts of their classrooms and workplaces. Despite this, they are not always perceived the same way as their fellow classmates and coworkers.
“Most of the time, students are pretty accepting of them because they are generally by nature very accepting, very friendly,” Justice said. “Most of the time they are accepted but not necessarily included.”
As many difficulties as those with Down Syndrome face, they are also known to be some of the most cheerful people in the world. Junior Elementary Education and Special Education major Emily Sechrist has babysat a girl with Down Syndrome since she was a baby and can attest to that cheerful disposition.
“In general, children with special needs, including those with Down syndrome, tend to be the sweetest, happiest and most loving children,” Sechrist said. “Their joy is fun to be around, and contagious.”
In all the years Justice has taught special education, she has faced challenges, but there are good things too.
“Primarily with Down Syndrome, they have a huge heart, they are very encouraging, they are willing to try just about anything, they persevere and have a lot of patience and stamina,” she said.
“They’re very trusting and if you tell them to do something, they’ll trust that you’re telling them the right thing.”
In the past, those with Down Syndrome did not have as much support as today. In fact, history shows quite the opposite. Down Syndrome was named after Dr. John Langdon Down, but was first known as “Mongolism.” According to the National Association for Down Syndrome (NADS), during the first half of the twentieth century in the United States, the majority of children with Down syndrome were placed in institutions – frequently soon after birth.
These children were separated from their families and often left in “deplorable conditions… locked away so that the rest of society could not see the horror of their lives,” according to the NADS.
When Marty and Kay McGee gave birth to a daughter with Down Syndrome, they wanted a different life for her than being put away in an institution and over the years founded the NADS.
In today’s society, there is much more support for and understanding of those with Down Syndrome because of organizations like the NADS and the NDSS. Many people are seeking to make a difference by advocating for someone or something they feel is underrepresented, and one opportunity to be an advocate for Down Syndrome Awareness is the Buddy Walk.
The Buddy Walk is the premier advocacy even for Down Syndrome in the United States. In its inaugural year of 1995, 17 Buddy Walks were held to promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with Down Syndrome. Since then, it’s grown to hosting around 250 walks annually.
While none are held in Oklahoma, there are many in Texas, and one is coming up soon in Dallas. The Down Syndrome Guild of Dallas is holding a Buddy Walk Oct. 29, 2017. For more information, check out 2017dsgbuddywalk.kintera.org.
For more information about local support for those with Down Syndrome or their family members and friends, the Down Syndrome Association of Central Oklahoma is active through many family-oriented events, education workshops and community awareness campaigns, according to their website. Their website is: dsaco.org.
“I think just with disabilities in general, don’t be afraid to reach out to those you perceive to be different than you,” Justice said. “Just reach out a hand and make a new friend with whomever it is.”