Our first full week of kindergarten brought with it some growing pains as Jackson is still working to transition from his preschool day (2.5 hours) to his kindergarten schedule (6 hours) Yes, this is a challenge for any student but for a student with Down syndrome that is already working so much harder during the school day, the transition is even more of a challenge. Along with the constant stress and worry about school, there were news stories that ripped my heart out. Iceland is using prenatal testing to eradicate all births of babies with Down syndrome and other countries are following their lead. One day these countries will not have a single individual with Down syndrome in their country. Let that sink in, they are seeking to eliminate an entire group of people based on preconceived notions of worth. It is out-dated perceptions, that by the way, hard-working self-advocates are proving false with every accomplishment, that are destroying future lives. These medical “advancements” that make it possible to detect Down syndrome earlier in pregnancies are leading us down a slippery slope. What’s next? Where does it end? And how can a test possibly predict a future or determine worth? It can’t! Compassion, empathy, and determination are characteristics that are often associated with individuals with Down syndrome. I think we all can agree, the world needs more individuals that embody these characteristics, not less.
Being a mom of a son with Down syndrome, headlines like these slap me in the face and stab me in the heart with the reality that there are millions of people in this world that view my son as unworthy of life, love or happiness. He and others like him are seen as a burden to society without anything to contribute. These ignorant opinions are out there and it is always so heartbreaking, but last week featured countless headlines celebrating the elimination of an entire group of people that are near and dear to my heart. I knew I needed to make my voice heard. You can read my response here.
Individuals with Down syndrome have the potential to do the same things we all do but they need resources and support to succeed. Every day these individuals are making valuable contributions to society and living full, productive and happy lives. Inclusion builds in individuals, like Jackson, confidence, independence and provides opportunities for meaningful experiences and relationships. The more confident individuals with Down syndrome are, the more likely they will be to engage with their community and share their full potential.
Secondly, inclusion teaches the other kids in the classroom that difference is ok, differences are something to be celebrated but in reality, individuals with Down syndrome are more alike than different. When kids grow up understanding that, they are less likely to fear Down syndrome in adulthood. And less fear equals more acceptance and inclusion. Down syndrome isn’t something that prevents a meaningful life. In fact, it has brought meaning and purpose to my life. Individuals with Down syndrome should be celebrated and valued.
Needless to say, it had already been a stormy week but the rainbow was just around the corner. I was scheduled to give a short presentation to Jackson’s class about him. What happened that morning was the most vibrant rainbow after the rain showers of that first week of school. My experience in his kindergarten classroom changed not only my outlook on this school year but also in the world and the future. I needed this morning in a class of kindergarteners to find my hope for the future and re-energize me.
I read Giraffes Can’t Dance and talked a bit about Jackson and ultimately gave the message that we all have similarities and differences but we all do things in our own beautiful way. The reason I was there (I thought) was to help the kids understand Jackson better, but I was the one that got the most out of my time in his classroom. Right before I spoke, the class did a good morning activity that nearly left me in tears. It was in that moment that I saw the purity of the hearts in that room. This was exactly where I wanted Jackson to be. They would help him and he would open hearts and minds. Even though I have spoken about Down syndrome around 20 times, I was so nervous that my hands were shaking. My favorite part was when I hesitantly asked if there were any questions and a boy shot his hand right up. I called on him and he asked,
“What other things does Jackson like to do with his family?”
I was relieved and humbled. To these kids, Down syndrome wasn’t a big deal. Jackson was just another friend in their classroom. Kids get it. This was happening at the same time that countries are striving to eliminate all individuals with Down syndrome because of fear and ignorance. Adults are leading with ignorance and kids are lead with open hearts and open minds. Inclusion gives kids the opportunity to see first-hand that Down syndrome isn’t something to be afraid of. Rather, it is just one part of who their new friend, Jackson, is. This is a valuable lesson that they will carry into adulthood and perhaps one day one of Jackson’s classmates will celebrate their own child who happens to have an extra chromosome.
After a challenging week, I needed these kids to help me see the goodness in the world. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience their pure hearts. I am filled with hope for this school year and for the future generations who will hopefully lead us all towards a kinder world where everybody will be included and celebrated for what makes them unique. We all could learn a lot from a room full of kindergartners!