As a kid, I did not know one person with Down syndrome, not one person. By the time I was an adult, I had had zero interactions with a person with Down syndrome. I had heard about Down syndrome, but I had no idea what it was or what it meant. My son was the first person I knew with Down syndrome.
During my son’s first week of kindergarten, I nervously went into his classroom to talk about Down syndrome and how he may do some things differently, but most importantly how he was more alike than different. Those kindergarteners showed me that day, and every day since that they see my son as a friend, plain and simple.
When kids grow up understanding difference is something to be celebrated, but that we are all more alike than different, they are less likely to fear people different from themselves. Less fear equals more acceptance and inclusion for all. Down syndrome isn’t something that prevents a meaningful life. In fact, I’d argue that Down syndrome makes life more meaningful. I know it has for my family.
Imagine this: In a hospital room, parents of a newborn baby with the most adorable smile and squishy arms and legs just received a diagnosis of Down syndrome. The father of the baby immediately recalls his friend from elementary school who also had Down syndrome. He remembers he was kind, worked hard, had the best sense of humor, and loved to make his friends laugh. The father’s heart immediately fills with joy and he tells his wife, “Our little boy is going to be great; he is something to celebrate! We are lucky to have him in our lives.” Those parents will believe in their son and raise him with high expectations and a lot of love. The boy will, in fact, be great!
This is the ripple effect of inclusion. I believe that if a peer in my son’s class has a child with Down syndrome or knows somebody that has a baby with Down syndrome, they will see that baby as capable and the gift that they are. My son is changing the future of the world just by working hard and teaching his peers that Down syndrome isn’t something to be feared. Differences are a beautiful part of life and all individuals have their own unique talents and gifts.
When we first started on our inclusion journey, we wanted inclusion for our son because we knew it was best for him. I also knew it would be a good thing for his peers, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of what my son is doing for his peers and the world. Many times this year, I have seen his classmates show kindness, empathy, and understanding. They natural slow their pace to accommodate his slower pace, they talk to him same as they do all their other friends, regardless of how he responds, and they help and include him.
Inclusion is truly a win-win. When my son started the school year, my son was unsure of his abilities. Recently, he read his sight words in front of his class, loud and clear. This accomplishment is the result of increased self-confidence, pride in his work and that he feels included in his class. The more confident individuals with Down syndrome are, the more likely they will be to engage with their community and share their full potential.
An inclusive world begins with inclusive experiences now. Inclusion creates a ripple effect that benefits not only the person being included but also shapes the perceptions of their peers now and in the future.