Happy always? – questioning stereotypes

Today is Day 16 of 31 for 21, a blogging effort to promote awareness of Trisomy 21.

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Tonight I was speaking to dd17 on the phone and she mentioned that a classmate of hers mentioned having a niece with Down syndrome.  Dd responded that her brother also has T21.

The classmate asked to see a picture, so dd pulled out her phone to show her.  A bunch of girls overheard that her brother has Down syndrome and also wanted to see the picture, afterward all clamoring about how cute Yirmiyahu is.  Dd said she realized that she views a person with T21 much differently than her peers, even her classmate who is studying special ed.

The general feedback was, “Oh, kids with Downs are so cute!  They’re always happy and smiling!”  And there was something about this that bothered her.  I know this is a much better response than what people with T21 have faced for many years, but we’re still so far from having acceptance and appreciation of people with special needs as individuals.

Yirmiyahu is a very engaging baby.  I’ve never seen any of my other kids emotionally pull people into their sphere like he does.  I don’t think that people are telling me he’s cute just because he has T21, since most people who casually meet us have no idea.  But when people who know his diagnosis tell me how cute and happy he is, I’m a little uncomfortable.  Because it’s just too stereotypical.

Stereotypes hurt people, whether they are idealized positive versions or negative and judgmental stereotypes.  Stereotyping is convenient because it gives a way to mentally ‘file’ a person, but it also keeps the person being  from being able to be seen as the individual he is.

Yirmiyahu is very good natured and enjoys interacting with people tremendously.   He has an inner light and a way of spreading joy to others that is a special gift.  He also has times he’s overtired and grumpy or hurt and he’s not feeling cheerful.  To stereotype someone with T21 as ‘always happy’ is not only false but hurtful because it minimizes him as a person.  It devalues him as a unique and special person (and every person is unique and special) and puts him into a predefined box that says ‘different’ and ‘other’ on it.

A person with T21 who has the ability to look at the positive in the world should be valued for that – not treated like a mascot or a pet dog who slobbers all over you with excitement when you walk in the house.  He’s a person.  A person with strengths and weaknesses.  A person who wants to be liked and appreciated and seen for who he is.  Just like all of us.


2 thoughts on “Happy always? – questioning stereotypes

  1. So…Avivah, what you are saying is that children are human beings with the full range of human emotions…and that even (especially?) “special” children with “labels” are human beings with the full range of human emotions. That is SO radical!

    1. It’s kind of sad that it has to be radical to say something so obvious, isn’t it? I think this should be self-evident but people don’t have enough personal experience with those with disabilities to have a framework for what to expect of them, so they fall into stereotypical thinking instead.

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