Down Syndrome: On Holy Ground

As part of its “More Alike than Different” Campaign, the National Down Syndrome Congress has been sponsoring an online poster contest. Parents were asked to submit photos of their children with Down Syndrome, along with a caption along the lines of, “Who’s a better baseball player, you or me?” or “Who’s a better big sister, you or me?” This was intended to highlight the ways in which our Down Syndrome children are human beings deserving respect, like everyone else. The posters could be downloaded to raise awareness in the participants’ communities, and the three posters that won the most votes would become part of the national awareness campaign. Enthusiasm ran high; hundreds of parents of children with Down Syndrome submitted photos capturing all of the beauty and diverse talents of those they love.

Several days ago something unthinkable happened. Someone raided the poster gallery, copied the photos, added new captions and text to the pictures, and posted them on another Internet forum. The new captions were so hateful, demeaning, and vulgar that they should not be reproduced here. They insulted the kids, including slurs about their cognitive abilities and references to physical anomalies. Some involved perverse and explicit sexual references. Even in the wild precincts of the Internet, all this is well beyond the pale.
I have a two-year-old son with Down Syndrome. I didn’t submit a poster of him, and I know only one of the families personally who did and had theirs maliciously altered. Yet like most others in the Down Syndrome community, I share in the common sense of helplessness and outrage. Because a funny phenomenon occurs when you have a child with Down Syndrome.
After falling in love with your baby’s beautiful physical features – especially those slightly slanting, almond-shaped eyes, and sweet small mouth that crinkles into the widest grin imaginable – you feel an almost instant kinship and affection for other children with Down Syndrome. Families with a loved one with Down Syndrome share a common bond that’s difficult to describe. Certainly my son has a strong family resemblance, and Down Syndrome children look very much like their parents, brothers, and sisters. These children, however, also share a common resemblance to each other. In a culture that blithely thinks it’s okay – almost a duty – to abort anyone who will be born less than perfect, seeing our own children in the faces of those children treated as if they weren’t human on the Internet was gut-wrenching and sickening.
This attack was also painful because of the callous lack of understanding of what these photos stand for. Accomplishments in this particular world are hard won. They represent hours of sleepless nights rocking babies who struggle to breathe during bouts of pneumonia and other respiratory infections. They represent long hospital stays, emergency room visits, and anxious hours spent in surgery waiting rooms. They represent days, months, and years of physical, occupational and speech therapy, conferences with school officials, and the effort to make others understand these children’s unique gifts. Even the simplest everyday activities can be a real triumph for children and parents. The amount of love, suffering, pain, and prayers that go into the moments captured in the posters is probably more than many people go through in a lifetime. These children overcome circumstances and adversities that would overwhelm most adults.
The offending website was taken down in the past few days; it remains unclear whether that happened because of legal threats or protests by advertisers. I’ve noticed that public blogs about Down Syndrome are being closed or made private because parents are fearful of a repeat episode. The National Down Syndrome Congress has assembled a legal team to explore options for bringing charges against the offending parties.
Ironically, this occurred during National Disabilities Awareness Month, and days before National Down Syndrome Awareness Day on March 21. But it may be providential that this occurred during Lent. Our thoughts during these weeks turn naturally to the suffering of Christ and of his Mother, as she witnessed his pain. Outside my family’s kitchen window stands a likeness of Our Lady of Sorrows. Since our son was born, I have often prayed to Mary under this title to help us bear the pain of seeing our son suffer physically. Like so many parents of a child with Down Syndrome, we have watched him undergo the agonies of open heart surgery, struggle to accomplish simple tasks like breathing and eating, and fall ill countless times with sicknesses that threaten to overpower his weakened immune system.
But after seeing the online ridicule of Down Syndrome children, I wonder whether the deepest sorrow that pierced Mary’s heart was not the physical suffering of her son, but the cruel taunts and mockery to which he was subjected. It must have been bewildering to her that his tormentors could not see that all the life and goodness, truth and beauty in her Son. Of course our children are not messiahs. But a Holy Cross Priest at Notre Dame reminded us last week that those of us who care for individuals with cognitive handicaps stand on holy ground. Knowing a child with Down Syndrome is like getting a small glimpse of the divine; original sin has been cleansed by baptism, and their souls are barely touched by actual sin. And that’s why we feel that when they are shown disrespect, something innocent and holy and sacred has been profaned.
Our Lady of Sorrows, may all of us see in the faces of those with disabilities, particularly this March 21 those with Down Syndrome, the image of the God who saved us.

Mary O’Callaghan holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. She is a homemaker, a home-schooler, and a co-founder of InForming Life, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing accurate information and support to parents who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome and to helping them bring their babies to term. For information about InForming Life: [email protected]