Down Syndrome Hits Prime Time

April 26, 2011

About a year after my daughter was born, the television series Glee burst onto the scene.  A sucker for show tunes and musical theatre, I quickly became hooked on this upbeat portrait of high school life. 

Several months into the series, a new character was introduced: Becky Jackson, a student with Down syndrome.  Becky, played by actress Lauren Potter, wanted to audition for the champion cheerleading team headed up by its evil coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch).  I’m sure I watched with my hands covering my eyes during the first scenes with Becky and Sue.  Sue’s character crushes everyone she encounters, and I shuddered to think of how she might treat Becky. 

In a very interesting twist, Sue accepts Becky for the team and although the other teachers do not quite understand this, viewers witness Sue visiting her older sister Jean (played by Robin Trocki), who also has Down syndrome, and we finally see a tolerant, compassionate side to Sue Sylvester.

Becky’s character is a treat to watch– I believe she breaks down stereotypes and normalizes the experience of a modern teen with Down syndrome.  A lot of people ask me if my daughter will go to “regular” school– a fair question since when we were kids, individuals with DS went somewhere else. (I’m still not sure where!) I have to believe that if a new generation of teens and young adults see Becky Jackson participating fully in high school life, there will be a much greater understanding of the capabilities of people with Down syndrome.

Since that first episode with Becky and Jean, the two actresses have had recurring roles on this top-rated show. For families, it is quite comforting to see people with disabilities on mainstream television.  To be quite honest, I can’t really remember seeing anyone else with Down syndrome on TV since the series Life Goes On was on the air about 20 years ago, but perhaps I just didn’t know where to look.  

A couple of other programs have been brought to my attention recently as well. ABC’s Private Practice aired an episode in February called Two Steps Back which featured a  pregnant teenager with Down syndrome.  In addition, the latest season of Upstairs Downstairs premiered on PBS this past month and also had a storyline involving a young woman with Down syndrome. 

In the following interview, actress Sarah Gordy disucusses her experience on the program:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoDgWvXiZGg&w=480&h=390]
Even the animated program Family Guy had a character with Down syndrome on an episode last year.  Naturally, it was irreverant to say the least and stirred up some controversy when the character says her mother was the former Governor of Alaska.

Despite differing opinions about how characters with DS should be portrayed, it is wonderful to see actors and actresses with disabilities employed on programs with such extensive viewership. Visibility will undoubtedly lead to increased awareness and tolerance. And to top it off, Canadian families who attend the Canadian Down Syndrome Society conference this year will have the privilege of hearing Glee‘s Lauren Potter speak at one of the sessions. What an amazing role model for all of our kids!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah April 28, 2011 at 4:55 pm

I loved to see a baby with DS in the new Pampers campaign. In both the new commercial and in some emails. Great so see children with DS getting some visibility!

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Heather April 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I hadn’t seen that! I’ll have to check out the website…. perhaps the commercial is on there. It is good for companies to show some diversity!

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