Recently, while I was giving a presentation on Down syndrome to a class of 7th graders, a student asked me, “Is there anything that people with Down syndrome are extra good at? Like, better than your average person?”
My mind raced through how to use the last 90 seconds of class time to answer in a way that was in line with both the social model of disability and the setting: science class. This wasn’t an intimate conversation with a friend where I could speak anecdotally or philosophically for half an hour about my thoughts on the subject. This was a good question that I wasn’t ready to answer.
Still, I knew somewhere in the back of my brain that I had read some convincing studies on Down syndrome and empathic behavior and I remembered some compelling thing I read about hypotonia (low muscle tone) and swimming once upon a time.
After I remarked on what a great question it was, I quickly replied that there was evidence that low muscle tone could be an advantage in learning to swim and that people with Down syndrome can have a remarkable capacity for expressing care for others, and adeptly navigating social encounters. I mentioned that I never knew how to gracefully exit a conversation with a new acquaintance at a party until a couple years ago when 13 year old girl with Down syndrome showed me how. The bell rang, and that was what went on the record for this class of 7th graders.
Of course, people with Down syndrome might be more likely to have characteristics and abilities that are valued in a world built for nondisabled people, just as we know it is likely for them to have characteristics that are devalued. It gets murky for me here, though. I refuse to try to come up with ways to pander to nondisabled or neurotypical people to make them see people with Down syndrome as more human or deserving of life and inclusion because people with Down syndrome have characteristics that are valued in an ableist society.
There are studies that have shown that people with Down syndrome look at the faces of people in distress for longer, and show more caring and comforting behaviors to those in distress. There is a difference between this and empathy, however, because the same study shows they may be less likely to take on or even label the emotions of others, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all. There are also studies that show that people with Down syndrome may have an increased capacity for perceiving certain moods based on facial expression. Those with Down syndrome may smile more than a person without Down syndrome (Fidler et al, 2005).
We don’t get to assume those are superpowers carried on the 21st chromosome, however, because the question hasn’t yet been thoroughly asked in response to these findings: Is this a survival strategy? Living in a world that is incredibly hostile and exclusionary to disabled people, particularly cognitively and developmentally disabled people– have folks with Down syndrome learned how to interact socially in such a way as to keep themselves safer? Is the ability to perceive moods developed because reading behavior is important to predicting an unsafe situation? Does frequent smiling encourage nondisabled people to be kinder and more inclusive to individuals with Down syndrome? I wish we knew more about the answers to these questions. I wish our society wanted to know the answers to these questions badly enough that there was funding to study them. Most importantly, I hope that it is people with Down syndrome themselves who get to report back on this.
Asking the question, “Is there anything people with Down syndrome are better at because they have 3 21st chromosomes?” opens up the door to more questions than it will ever have answers for. Is it important? Will this information be used to further objectify people with Down syndrome? Will we only view people with Down syndrome as worthy of life if they have something extra to contribute? What about people with Down syndrome who do not exhibit those traits, will they then be seen as tragic (or more tragic)? Will this be used to put other people with developmental disabilities down, such as research that is used to distinguish those with Williams syndrome from their developmentally disabled peers as more friendly and musically inclined, and the so-called Down syndrome advantage? Will this increase the tendency to generalize people with Down syndrome and continue to reduce them to a set of predictable behaviors and abilities? Will it perpetuate stereotypes of people with Down syndrome as “angels?”
People with Down syndrome have plenty to be proud of, and shouldn’t need a disability superpower to grant them higher status or further a movement for their rights. They shouldn’t need to smile more, be more charming, show more caring behavior, or anything else to be considered valuable. How can we ask this question and avoid these pitfalls until we have truly dismantled our ableist culture? I don’t know that we can. I came to this blog post to ask questions today, not answer them. I do know that all disabled people are deserving of life, love, appreciation, and inclusion, whether their or not disability gives them a “superpower,” whether they are pleasant to be around by nondisabled standards or not.
I wish I lived in a world where we weren’t asking these questions to assign value to people or try to counter eugenic practices. I wish we got to ask as curiously as that charming 7th grader did.