Against Using the “Happy” Down Syndrome Stereotype (No Matter What the Dawks Say)

Note: According to my research, “Down syndrome” is preferable to “Down’s Syndrome”. Also, all credit goes to my friend and her friend who is my new friend who came up with the Ylvis/Dawkins joke yesterday.

There has been a lot of conversation around a certain prominent atheist announcing, in a poor and nuance-lacking imitation of Peter Singer, that he believes it immoral to not abort a fetus with Down Syndrome. Although many of the non- and anti-religious types who differed with him on the matter are pro-choice, we took issue with the notion that not aborting was somehow morally inferior to aborting.

Dawkins responded in his usual fashion by claiming it was the fault of the medium rather than his message, yet somehow, also as per usual, making the situation worse by adding in more words. It is eugenics no matter how much he denies it, and why deny it when he’s already come out in favor of eugenics, anyway? Eugenic practices hardly have to be associated with Hitler to be considered bad when it was we Americans who inspired the Nazis to use societal notions of inferiority and superiority to coerce people into reproducing or not reproducing.

What would a “What the Dawks Say?” incident be without a little splash damage?

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Against Using the “Happy” Down Syndrome Stereotype (No Matter What the Dawks Say)

Poverty & Disability: A Most Dangerous Combination

Poverty plus disability equals death sentence. They’re like bleach and ammonia: if the twain do meet and there are no windows for you to open, you’re history. This is about someone who found a window or two but could have just as easily asphyxiated.

He was born into the middle class but a custody battle (and, later, his mother’s drug problems) ensured that he grew up in poverty. Due to undiagnosed ASD and incredible stressors related to his family life, he ended up institutionalized and then, later, abused in a group home. The traumatization would affect him in a way that wouldn’t become evident until many years later. For the time being, he was busy working his way into a fairly well-paying IT job. Not that attaining it meant his life was much easier, mind you. As a young adult with a decent job, he was taxed with supporting his newly-sober mother as well as his youngest sibling.

The result of his trauma surfaced without him noticing at first. If you lack health insurance, a little pain and fogginess are not something about which you have the resources to worry. As his symptoms escalated, he couldn’t help but notice, especially when everything starting falling apart for him. He lost his job, and then, devoid of adequate income, his car and finally his home in rapid succession. His symptoms were consistent with ever-worsening fibromyalgia, a condition likely initially triggered by his childhood experiences.

an image of two hands with text describing the symptoms of fibromyalgia

As he couch-surfed his way through homelessness, he began to realize that his line of work, IT, was wholly incompatible with his degenerating physical and mental condition, and so he initiated the long process of making a disability claim. Lacking a car, proper nutrition, care for his condition, and even access to water and electricity at times meant that his work prospects would have been grim even in a robust economy. Add the fact that he was looking for work in a recession and the projected outlook goes from grim to downright impossible.

Though his job prospects might have been bleak, the rest of his life wasn’t wholly so. A chance crossing of paths meant that he didn’t end up dead: he met me three years ago, and, through me, a group of friends willing to help him. Together, we have endured the personal side of the world’s generalized indifference to the plight of the poor and disabled. Wanting to be able to help him kicked me out of a period of lethargic complacency and into a quest to seek better employment despite the fact that I am a doomed recession-era graduate. More importantly, his support and encouragement are what bolstered my confidence to the point where I don’t need him to tell me that I am worthy of good things.

on left, a woman is smiling and dressed in a Carmen Sandiego costume. on right, a man dressed up as Where's Waldo? is shrugging with a smile.
A photograph of some trees and bushes.

The United States Social Security Administration as well as my local Office of Disability Adjudication and Review might believe that he is unworthy of the most basic things, i.e. timely and honest responses to his inquiries into the status of his disability case (no really, the details are that bad), but I believe that he is worthy of the best things. Even as I’ve been humbled by the kindness of strangers and friends in helping him out of homelessness, it enrages me to think that if he hadn’t sent me that message on OkCupid back in the summer of 2010, he would likely be in a far worse position.

So while this story has a happy ending (at least for now), I can’t help but wonder how many Dannys didn’t manage to meet their Heina, or who don’t have a Heina out there for them. I could say that someone as talented, compassionate, supportive, and brilliantly auto-didactic as the particular poor and disabled person in my life doesn’t deserve to suffer. But really, should economic status coupled with genetic predispositions be a death sentence for those who, for whatever reason, aren’t loved by someone privileged enough to help?

a street art depiction of the OkCupid logo
And also who are good at sending OkCupid messages.

Only the most heartless Randist would say “yes” without hesitation to that. The rest of us generally would say no but do little to work towards a world where the answer to that is actually no. The intersection of classism and ableism is a perilous and oft-overlooked one. The fact that we don’t see it is, for the unlucky ones, literally a matter of life and death.

Poverty & Disability: A Most Dangerous Combination