Monday, December 26, 2016

My Christmas Mission to Educate

As in years past, my Christmas day was spent with family, sitting around the fire wearing reindeer-printed sweaters, drinking mimosas, and occasionally attending to a special on TV. While catching a glimpse of some program, I was presented with an opportunity to educate on ableism. Normally, I would bite my tongue, sip my drink, and wait to rant about it with friends later. On this Christmas day, I decided it was imperative not to miss the valuable opportunity to spread awareness.

In response to a segment on a woman’s experiences with Down syndrome, my mom stated, “how absolutely horrible to be a downs.” My mom had no intention of causing offense. She meant to express gratitude for our family’s privilege. Nonetheless, I was triggered and felt the need to hop on my soapbox.

My first response related to biased language. I explained the difference between her phrasing, which defines a person as a “downs” - and using person-first language that includes the disorder as something the person experiences (rather than as their entire identity). I emphasized that a person has many identities, including disability status, and categorizing a person with a label, like saying someone is a “downs,” can be interpreted as offensive and limiting. I offered alternatives such as saying someone has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or experiences Down syndrome.

Then, I explained why I found the phrasing "how absolutely horrible" judgmental. It is undeniable that Down syndrome can make life more challenging. At the same time, we all encounter adversity that makes life more challenging. For some, it’s being bad at math; for me, it’s having low vision. Regardless of the challenge, it’s not ideal, and it’s also not unequivocally unsurmountable. For something like being bad at math, we envision a fulfilling life despite that challenge. We would never presuppose that life is "absolutely horrible" because of that challenge. Down syndrome is simply another form of challenge, one that does not preclude happiness, wellness, or success. In other words, I find it presumptuous and inaccurate to believe life would be "absolutely horrible" if it included a specific challenge, in this case Down syndrome. 

Although Christmas may not seem like the prime time to educate about ableism and identity, I stand by my decision to share my perspective.

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