The British TV soap Emmerdale recently announced plans to broadcast a storyline about a couple terminating a pregnancy after being told their unborn baby has Down’s syndrome.
It soon became apparent that the show’s producers had failed to consult with Britain’s Down’s syndrome community before writing their story, which has since been strongly criticised for perpetuating societal prejudice towards people with Down’s syndrome.
Despite an abundance of evidence showing that people with Down’s syndrome can and do live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives the medical profession continues to treat Down’s syndrome as a suffering-inducing condition that mothers would do best to avoid at all cost.
Diehard ignorance and prejudice prevent us from genuinely appreciating that more often than not people with Down’s syndrome live happy lives and contribute to the happiness of those around them. People with Down’s syndrome now live longer, healthier lives than ever before, attend mainstream school, learn to read and write. Many adults live independently and hold down jobs and marry.
Currently in England, Wales and Scotland, there is a general 24-week time limit for abortion but, if the baby has a disability, including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot, abortion is legal right up to birth. Although The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has called on Britain to change its abortion law to make sure that people are not singled out because of disabilities such as Down’s, the British government has blatantly ignored the UN’s recommendation.
And that is why Heidi Crowter, a young woman with Down’s syndrome, is taking the government to court. The powerful argument Heidi is making is that her life is no less valuable than that of someone without a disability such as Down’s syndrome. Not only is the current law downright barbaric, as Sally Phillips, actress and mother of a son with Down’s points out, it also reinforces negative stereotypes about the value and dignity of people with disabilities, and it is such stereotypes that made the Emmerdale story possible.
Some will argue that some people with Down’s syndrome are more ‘able’ than others, and not everyone will be capable of living independently or hold down a job. Some will also have medical problems associated with Down’s. While that is true, no one’s life, irrespective of how many chromosomes they’re born with, is guaranteed to be happy and fulfilling. It’s a chance we all take. The point is, everyone should have that chance, no matter what.
To find out more about Heidi’s case and to make a contribution, visit: www.crowdjustice.com/case/downrightdiscrimination/
Meanwhile, a remake of Roald Dahl’s The Witches has been released, featuring American actress Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch. In Dahl’s original novel, the witches are described as having claws instead of fingers, no toes and no hair. Wearing gloves and wigs, they hide their disfigurements – the features that make them stand out as bad people. As if Dahl’s book wasn’t already riddled with prejudice and stereotypes about the morality of people with disfigurements, the creators of the new remake have rendered Anne Hathaway’s character even more disfigured. In the film, the witches all have ectrodactyly, a congenital condition described by the absence of all or part of one or more fingers and toes. The Grand High Witch also sports visible scars on her face, yet another popular marker of an evil baddie in the movie world.
The people behind Emmerdale and The Witches either fail to imagine or simply ignore the impact these kinds of ableist and disability shaming portrayals have on young people living with disabilities and disfigurements.
I still remember the humiliation and shame I felt as a ten-year-old watching a popular film featuring a man with cleft lip as the murderous village idiot. The last thing children (and adults) with disabilities need, are movies and TV shows that portray characters with similar conditions as inferior, second class humans.
So what will it take for the entertainment industry to stop perpetuating harmful stereotypes about people with disabilities and disfigurements and start featuring strong, positive characters with Down’s syndrome, cleft etc.?