21 March 2010

3 * 21 – But Where Are They?

Today, 21st of March, is World Down Syndrome Day, a day that:

aims to promote awareness and understanding of Down syndrome and related issues: and to mobilise support and recognition of the dignity, rights and well being of persons with Down syndrome.

3 * 21. 3 of chromosome 21. Who ever thought of using this date was quite clever. And it is only right to raise awareness of what is Down Syndrome, or Trisomy 21. To demystify it, to put forward facts, to show that people with DS are just that before anything else: people.

But then, why are they so invisible?

Last January I was prompted about a series of 3 programmes on the UK Channel 4 that stepped outside the norm: “How to look good naked – with a difference”.

Now, I am not much of a fan of Gok Wan: though I like his ideas, I find them simple and quite interesting, the man simply annoys me tremendously. For some reason he gets on my nerves, and until that particular series came on I had never been able to watch a full programme.

In this case, I not only stuck it through the first episode, but found myself waiting for the next two. He applied the formula of his tried and tested show “How to look good naked” to a woman in a wheelchair, a woman with a prosthesis leg, and then most interestingly a blind lady. This last episode was obviously a real challenge, for how do you “show” a blind person what she looks like, and not only give her a sense of how people see her, but also of how to present herself? I must say I found the programme very moving, and was almost cheering at the end when the woman walked down the catwalk in full knowledge of her appearance and thoroughly enjoying the applause she was getting.

Apart from the theme of each episode, and the fabulous results in terms of regaining self-esteem that each woman obviously achieved, there was a secondary theme running through: why do High Street shops and brands never show people with disability in their advertising campaigns? The argument put forward was this: it is a fact of life that people with disability exist, that they form part of the customer population. Not showing them is a form of discrimination. So he engaged the help of 2 women in wheelchair to design a poster campaign and prove that a disable person can be a model and represent a brand as much as an able bodied one.

And to be fair to Gok Wan, or the producers of the series, one of the models travelling the catwalk with each of the participants was a stunningly beautiful woman with an amputated arm, in full view. Hence the man does acts on what he preaches.

Following on this he launched a petition destined to high street retailers in the UK to engage disable models in their advertising campaign.

This is interesting of course. Any thing that can move anyone towards inclusion of the “different” is welcome. But the whole emphasis seemed to be on the physical disability. What about the intellectual?

Has anyone seen an advert for any product or service featuring a person with Down Syndrome? Apart from the posters for the Special Olympics, or the current TV campaign for the AIB Better Ireland sponsorships, I personally have never seen any such person in what I would call mainstream advertising.

Why is this? Down Syndrome by the very nature of its manifestation is the most easily recognised form of intellectual disability. So, where are these people? If one in about 750 has DS, shouldn’t they be more visible?

I am not so naïve as to ignore the fact that people being portrayed in any advertising campaign, because they are “the face” of a product or a service, need to look beautiful and healthy. But, as an example, my little prince Cathal is beautiful. And right now he is very healthy. Having Down Syndrome does not negate health. Having Down Syndrome does not negate beauty. In fact I have often been moved by the incredible beauty I have found in some of the photos of people with DS I have had the pleasure of seeing over the last two years. Yet, before this, would I have stopped and looked? Would I have allowed myself the chance to be moved thus? Probably not.

Having said this, I am as guilty as anyone else for keeping DS invisible. Last year there was a campaign launched by Calpol for finding a new face for the product. I fleetingly thought that it might be a good idea to enter Cathal – ok, I am biased, and I am repeating myself, but he is a beautiful child! I even briefly mentioned it to his mammy. At the same time, deep down, I knew that, should he be entered, he would not stand a chance, he would not make the first cut. A glance at his eyes, and the photo would be put on the “NO” pile. There was no point of trying, as who would choose a toddler with DS to represent a product that is supposed to make children feel better? The child on the product packaging needs to show health, happiness, wellness. No one wants to see the face of a “problem” on their product.

Yet, guess what: one person in about 750 has the face of that “problem”. And that person, as much as you or I, is part of our society, part of what it is to be human, and let's not forget: also a consumer...

Happy 3 * 21 Day!


Cheri said...

Awesome post!

I too have had fleeting thoughts of entering Reid into some sort of advertising in hopes to have his little face help show that beauty comes packaged in so many different ways, in fact it is actually why I keep his hair on the longer side....thinking it might make him more marketable since that's how so many other boys are wearing their hair now...silly I know... especially since I have yet to do anything in regards to promotion. Your post has motivated me to send an email to a gal who's email address I have had for almost a year for a company called Lakeshore Learning who does the photography for their catalogs. But, you are right...I wish our beautiful ones with an extra chromosome were more visible and that they stood a chance just like anyone else to have their picture put in the "Yes" pile. Cathal's would....for sure! ;)

BTW...I totally agree with your comment on my CNN post...I started to add a comment myself but got sidetracked and haven't gone back yet to submit it ;)

Mel said...

I happen to think some of our kids with Ds are cuter than the average population, but perhaps I am biased. This NZ clothing company has used Nikolai as a model in the past:
And no, I do not get a cut!

Ciara said...

Good post Nan P, it was something I thought a lot about after Ava was born, I too was upset to not see people with her condition represented anywhere. I guess if people like Demi Moore are airbrushed on the cover of magazines what hope do our little ones have?
Anyway this might cheer you up, I saw that a young boy with DS in the UK was entered into a competition run by Next to find some child models and he made it through various stages, in fact I saw him in a black and white ad in this month's Red magazine. Check out the details below
That was last Nov, a little more googling and I found the following, he made the 10 runner's up, after more than 10,000 entered. Good man Harvey!

Penny Green said...

The Next Generation Modelling Competition was run online on Facebook and as far as I know there were 9 children with Down's Syndrome entered, of these two, Hannah and Harvey made it into the 100 finalists.

I was honoured to be able to attend the final and watch how they got on as both of them have been through open heart surgery.

They both did incredibly well duting what was a very hectic day and harvey was indeed chosen as one of the competition winners and he has already appeared in Next shop windows around the UK.

Penny Green
Down's Heart Group

Nan P. said...

Thank you for the comments – and the great news! Not quite as invisible as I thought.

It’s good to hear that some companies have started taking the plunge. Let’s just hope more and more jump in as well, so that people with DS are represented in all aspects of life, even in advertising. My point is: that IS integration.

Mel said...

I am a recent convert to "Glee" with the second series screening here now. They have two regular characters with DS, and often show people with disabilities, which is the only show on here in Primetime to do so. I hope it continues!