Every evening at 6pm many UK parents switch on the BBC’s Bedtime Hour and allow their children to wind down with an hour of calm, gentle TV. Bedtime Hour ends with a celebrity reading a story to the nation’s children and one evening last week the storyteller was an actor with Down Syndrome called Sarah Gordy. My family and I happened to be watching and afterwards we discussed the actor’s achievement in becoming so successful in her chosen career; in being selected to take part in such a prestigious programme; and in doing it so well.
Later I looked for online comments and found them, quite rightly, to be unanimously positive. I was struck however by the number of people who said it was a shame that Gordy’s Down Syndrome was considered relevant. They argued that she should be seen as an actor, not an actor with Down Syndrome. One commenter pointed out that people describe British multiple medal-winner Roger Black as an ‘Olympic athlete’ not (in spite of his congenital heart defect) an ‘Olympic athlete with a cardiac problem’. Although I sympathise with the undeniably good motives underlying this argument I have to respectfully disagree.
Down Syndrome has a huge effect on how a child develops, affecting their ability to learn to walk, talk and process information. Sarah Gordy has given a TEDx talk describing her path to a career in film and theatre in which she outlines some of the developmental challenges she faced along the way. The fact that this talented young woman – she’s a dancer as well as an actor - has achieved so much in the face of major biological adversity is hugely relevant. Making it unmentionable does her a disservice. Her Down Syndrome is an important part of the reason she is so uniquely inspirational and we shouldn’t shy away from that. Sarah Gordy’s 47 chromosomes are relevant to how we appreciate and understand her and you can bet your bottom dollar they have always been relevant to the people who have nurtured, educated and supported her throughout her life.