Not Such a Different Culture
Forty six years old Annie wakes up every morning at 7:00 a.m. and begins her morning routine. Her favorite morning show blares while she brushes her teeth, puts on her underclothes and buttons her dress. After treating her feet with a prescription moisturizer, she pulls on her stockings, sticks her feet into a pair of worn, black lace-ups and heads for the mirror. First Annie brushes her hair. Next she treats her wrists to a light spray of Dolce and Gabbana. Finally she applies a light blue eye shadow to her eyes and a hint of blush to her cheeks. After a brief assessment in the mirror, she heads out of her room, down the hallway, and into the kitchen. Behind a magnet on the fridge is a chart that dictates what she will be having for breakfast this morning. Annie is pre-diabetic so it’s important that she adheres to her menu. By 8:15, Annie is ready to leave for work. Sounds like a typical enough morning, no?
Save for a few individualized actions, Annie’s morning routine probably mirrors many of ours. But when they pass her on the street, many people unfamiliar with her demographic will uneasily look the other way. Some people even cross the street. Perhaps they are scared; they think she has some sort of disease they don’t want to catch. Perhaps they are simply uncomfortable; they worry about how to react if Annie starts talking to them. Mostly they are just ignorant; they don’t realize how many similarities they share with the woman with Down syndrome.
Approximately 1 out of 800-1,000 births in the U. S. results in Down syndrome. The abnormality is caused by a malfunction in the twenty-first chromosome; where most of us have two copies of every chromosome in our DNA, people with Down syndrome have three. Its physical manifestations are generally characterized by an abnormally small chin, almond shape eyes, a protruding or oversized tongue, and shorter limbs. People with Down syndrome are also prone to below average cognitive capabilities, but, like most of us, with an accommodative family environment, proper education, and lots of love and nurture, they can overcome the obstacles that life’s many challenges might otherwise provide.
I can continue to dwell on the differences between someone with Down syndrome, but why dwell on differences when we share so many more similarities? Like many of us, Annie would take a sunny day over a rainy day and a huge piece of cake over a salad; she does have a hard time following a restrictive diet. At times she is resolute, and won’t sway from her menu; other times the temptation of a small candy bar is hard to resist and, like many of us, she’ll sneak a piece from the cabinet when no one is looking. Annie has a boyfriend at work named Arnie , and like many people I know, Annie is not ready to commit. Like many of us, Annie likes dancing and loves music. She appreciates socializing and is especially fond of vacations—last summer she spent a week in Los Angeles with her friends where they hit up Disneyland, the beach, and Rodeo Drive.
Annie lives in a residential home with two other women, only one of whom has Down syndrome. The home belongs to an agency whose mission is to help people with various mental obstacles overcome their limitations and actualize their potentials. There is always a counselor on hand but her role is only to help out in situations where Annie would otherwise be at risk. Every few months, Annie and her roommates have private meetings with a program coordinator where they work on setting short and long-term goals for themselves. Each woman decides what she would like to accomplish and discusses how they would like to go about implementing their goal. Annie, for example, likes a system where she is rewarded for small goals; for example, she likes a soda when she is in bed on time. A goal can be anything from learning to go to the bank by herself to refraining from arguing when one of her friends upsets her.
During the day, Annie goes to a workshop. The particular workshop she attends has negotiated a contract with companies that provide packaging and assembly jobs for Annie and her peers. Their goal is to prepare Annie for work in a mainstream environment, but in the meantime she earns money respectably in a stress-free atmosphere. When she gets home at 4 p.m., Annie prepares a salad for dinner, exercises, and prepares her lunch for the next day. Sometimes she goes out in the evening; sometimes she has dinner and watches T. V. After dinner she clears off the table and showers. Her bedtime is at 11:15 p.m.
Like most of us, Annie’s day is comprised of many ups and downs—the up when her favorite song plays on the radio, the down when her bus is running late. Like most of us, Annie’s life is a bundle of struggles and triumphs, the struggle to achieve an independence we all seek, the triumph when newly accomplished goals allow for greater freedoms. And like most of us, Annie wants to be recognized as a legitimate human being, someone real and respectable.
So the next time you see Annie or one of her friends on the street, in a store, or in Brooklyn college’s cafeteria, accord her the same dignity and respect you would to someone without Down syndrome. It does seem silly to have to ask this of people –don’t we recognize all people as equal?—but reality unfortunately dictates that many are unsure and confused in encountering someone with Down syndrome. Simply put, treat her like a peer. When you get to know her, you will find that she is very much like you.
Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/weissfoto/2898762045/