“I am a man with Down syndrome and my life is worth living”



History is full of policies established to determine which human lives were valuable and which were not. Are we comfortable going down that path again?

 

BY GERRY CHIDIAC

Columnist

By observing history without judgment, we can learn from our mistakes. By examining primary documents – artifacts from a particular era – we can begin to understand the thinking of the people of that time.
In an effort to create a more objective perspective, I tell my students to imagine that they’re living in the future looking at our current society. How will history judge us?

Gerry Chidiac. Prince George Citizen photo

By asking this question, we become aware of the significance of our moment in shaping the history of the world. Each of us faces the immense challenge of embracing our role in making the world better for all time.
This isn’t something we can take lightly and it requires that we be open to different points of view. It also requires that we be in touch with the universal principles of truth, love and respect.
In a recent video of a man speaking directly to American policy-makers, modern society was challenged to look at itself in ways that make many of us uncomfortable, and to ask ourselves if we are indeed on the right path.
Frank Stephens, a man with Down syndrome, spoke passionately before a congressional subcommittee in a plea for further medical research funding to help people with his condition. He pointed out that the information gathered could hold the key to many medical discoveries that benefit the entire population.
He also pointed out, however, the uncomfortable fact that there are far fewer people like him being born than in the past. Stephens stated, “Some people say prenatal screens will identify Down syndrome in the womb and those pregnancies will just be terminated. … It’s hard for me to sit here and say those words.”
Indeed, Down syndrome births have been virtually eliminated in Iceland and Denmark, and greatly reduced in several other modern and progressive countries.
Fifty years from now, how will history look upon these decisions? Are we sure we’re doing the right thing?
I don’t intend to draw parallels, but history is full of examples of policies established that determined which human lives were valuable and which were not. We need to ask ourselves if we’re again moving in that direction and if those are chapters we would like to repeat?
Stephens did not only speak of important medical research, he also noted that people with Down syndrome fill the world with joy and laughter. He pointed out a Harvard study that discovered people with Down syndrome, as well as the members of their immediate families, are happier than the rest of society.
As an educator, I see how people with special needs have brightened our schools, and helped to build empathy and understanding. While it can be challenging to accommodate these students in my classroom, doing so has made me a better teacher and I believe that it’s improved the educational experience for everyone.
In the end, we’re all just people, each with our own gifts and each with our set of challenges. We’re at our best when we embrace our diversity and celebrate each other for who we are. We’re enriched because people like Stephens speak up and challenge us to be our best.
If we’re to move forward together and fill our history books with stories that we’re proud to read to our grandchildren, we need to listen to the words of wisdom from our neighbours today.
Frank Stephens tells us, “I am a man with Down syndrome and my life is worth living.”
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. Check out his website here. Find him on Facebook. Or on Twitter @GerryChidiac

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