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TV: Where Down Syndrome Is All the Rage

March 21 2011 | by

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The AAPD (American Association of People with Disabilities) honored the hit FOX series Glee with its Image Award last week. Glee won for its portrayal of not just one, but three people with disabilities.  There’s the darling Becky (played by actress Lauren Potter), Coach Sue Sylvester’s cheerleader/student assistant as well as Sue’s older sister, Jean (charmingly played by Robin Trocki).  Their performances are solid, the disability storyline is just a subtle current, and I love that one day my now 9-year-old (who has Down syndrome) will be able to see someone like him having a good time doing something they love.

I’ve always been on the fence regarding the casting of the Arnie character, a student performer who uses a wheelchair, who is played by non-disabled actor, Kevin McHale.  It’s not that I’m on the fence about Kevin – he’s got talent – it’s the idea that the show missed out on a prime opportunity to cast an actor with a disability in the role.

Nonetheless, a solid contribution to disability culture on a show that explores relevant themes in society (bullying, gay youth) while being both entertaining and provocative – Bravo!

Glee isn’t the only place where Down syndrome has had a significant storyline recently. A couple of weeks ago, there was an episode of Grey’s Anatomy involving prenatal testing for Down syndrome and other abnormalities, and a storyline on Private Practice about a teen with Down syndrome who got pregnant fooling around with a neighbor boy with significant learning disabilities.  Wow! It was almost disability overload that Thursday night, and it took me a few days to sort through how I felt about how the treatment of disability on these two shows.

The Grey’s Anatomy story revolved around prenatal testing for a character who is in the first few weeks of an unplanned pregnancy.  If you aren’t a Grey’s watcher let me sum up by saying that there’s a lot of drama around the pregnancy, and the mom (character Callie) was being pressured by her lesbian partner/pediatrician Arizona to have an amnio, while her sometimes lover Mark objected, saying that he’d raise a child – any child – on his own if he had too, special needs or none.  All in all, I thought it was a fair representation of the many issues that you may face when contemplating parenthood.

The Private Practice episode was a whole different story – here, a single mom raising a teen girl with Down syndrome exercised her parental authority over her daughter and arranged for a pregnancy termination without thoroughly explaining to her daughter how her actions had resulted in the consequence of pregnancy, or what she was doing by scheduling the termination.  Lots of prickly issues here, ranging from pro-choice/pro-life arguments to the ethics around delivering medical care to an adult child who may not be deemed competent to make decisions, to whether the mom character was adequately parenting her daughter.  Interestingly, ABC provides a medical researcher blog post on the topic – reporting objectively about the varying abilities of people with Down syndrome to live independently and asking readers to weigh in on the ethical dilemmas presented in the episode.

I talked to a few parents of children with Down syndrome and the reviews were mixed a best; most felt that once again popular culture had deemed having a child with special needs as the worst case scenario, something all of us know is simply just not true.

As we celebrate World Down Syndrome Day today, I want to express my gratitude to Hollywood writers, producers and casting agents who are making an effort to incorporate disability and all of its nuances – the adorable, the charming, the complicated, the prickly – in dramatic and entertaining storylines.  Do I wish that the storylines were always accurate and persistently positive in their portrayal of people with disabilities? Of course!  But there’s also a great value in these situations – they give us a chance to talk about disability in the context of popular culture, leveling the playing field a little and moving mainstream America further when it comes to embracing the beauty of diversity.


  • Shira

    Lisa, I’m glad to see Down’s Syndrome gaining major mainsteam acceptance in pop culture mediums like our television shows too these days. Thanks for sharing your terrific perspective; it gives me another reason to rejoice in being a Gleek! :)

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