Why are we so afraid of Down syndrome?

By Bonnie Finnerty, Education Director, Pennsylvania Pro-life Federation

Brad was his name. He was the first student I ever taught who had Down syndrome.

I was just entering my second year of full-time teaching. I held a Reading Specialist certificate and had taken several special education courses. So one might think I’d feel well prepared.

Yet, I found myself a bit nervous about having Brad in my sixth-grade Language Arts classroom. While I admired my school district for blazing a trail with inclusive classrooms, I had no practical experience teaching students with an extra chromosome. In fact, at 25 years old I had very little life experience interacting with people with Down syndrome.

But I need not have worried. Brad was an amazing addition to our class. He read on a sixth-grade level, better than some of his “typical” classmates. I loved when he volunteered to read out loud, showcasing his excellent decoding skills and impressing his peers.

Brad was pleasant and cooperative, not every day but most days– but the same could be said about the other 150 students I taught. Middle schoolers in general are a very fickle group!

On one of his tougher days, Brad hid under a desk for most of class. While his support teacher worked with him, his classmates dutifully carried on, modeling for Brad how he should behave.

On better days, Brad exuded love and happiness to the extreme! He accepted everyone as his friend and found joy in the ordinary, modeling for us how we should behave.

What Brad contributed to our classroom was far greater than anything I expected. He brought out the best in all of us. He challenged me to hone my teaching methodology so that concepts could be presented in novel ways, and in doing so, I was able to reach more students of varying aptitudes. I became a more creative, more thoughtful teacher with Brad in the room.

He challenged his peers to rethink stereotypes and perceived limitations, and to reach out to someone who was different but not less. It was heartwarming to see a student choose Brad to be his partner for a class activity or to see how several students welcomed him into a group project and helped him find a role. These students discovered that Brad was a just another human being, a person who laughed and cried, a person who achieved goals but also made mistakes, a person who had good days and bad.

And also that Brad was a person who offered unconditional acceptance and unbounded love.

We need more Brads in the world, not less.

I believe if more of us interacted with people with Down syndrome we would discover what a gift they are. We would stop trying to “eradicate” them, as they have done in Iceland through abortion. And we would stop aborting them in alarming numbers in our own country.

When receiving a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, parents are often presented with problems they could potentially face, rather than possibilities. Perhaps they or their doctor never had a Brad in their classroom and witnessed the beauty, the value, and the dignity of his life.

Why are we so afraid of Down syndrome? Why do we routinely test for it during pregnancy?

While it should be acknowledged that parenting a child with an extra chromosome can pose challenges, it is true that parenting any child can pose challenges, including those with autism, ADHD, depression, a cognitive impairment, a chronic medical condition, a hearing or visual impairment, or a host of other things that makes a person, makes us, anything less than “perfect.”

Shall we “eradicate” anyone who fails to meet society’s definition of perfection? If we continue to move in that direction of eugenics, who will be missing from our world?

We would be missing all the Brads who teach us so much more than we teach them…the Brads who inspire us to think differently and to love more than we thought we could.