G is for Genes

Bridging the gap between genetics and education

Down Syndrome, Genetics and a Bedtime Story

An actor demonstrates how biology tells us 'what is' but not 'what could be'

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.

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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.

I find in my own work exploring genetics and education that many people believe that genes should never be mentioned when talking about how children perform in school. There is widespread fear that it is dangerous, or even morally wrong, to acknowledge genetic influence on success. In G is for Genes Robert Plomin and I argue that we need to move beyond this fear so that we can get on with the important work of figuring out how to nurture each child’s nature most effectively. Our genes influence us, just as this actor’s extra chromosome influences her, but genetic material very rarely determines how well we do in life. Genes, like Down Syndrome, tell us ‘what is’ but not ‘what could be’. That’s where nurture takes over.

So, the talented young woman who read ‘We’re Not Sleepy’ to UK toddlers and pre-schoolers last week has Down Syndrome, a major learning disability. Let’s not shy away from that fact but embrace it. Her Down Syndrome has not stopped her from building a life and career of which anybody would be proud. Her extra chromosome has affected her, no doubt in very profound ways, but it hasn’t prevented her from nurturing her talents and succeeding in her chosen field. Genetic material affects us all but, as Sarah Gordy demonstrates so beautifully, there is no biological cap on success.

You can learn more about Sarah Gordy’s work, and see her TEDx talk at: www.sarahgordy.com

 

Kathryn Asbury, Ph.D., is a Psychologist who writes and teaches about what it means for children, parents and teachers that nature, as much as nuture, influences successes and failures in school.

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