Remember that show "Life Goes On" about Corky Thatcher, the boy who had Down syndrome? I used to make fun of that kid a lot. I used to make fun of the way he talked, the way he acted and the way he looked.
Now, more than 20 years later, I have a 1-year-old son with Down syndrome.
I was a teenager when the show was on and didn’t know anything about the disorder. What I also didn’t know then was that "Life Goes On" was the first show to feature a major character with Down syndrome. And that Chris Burke, the actor who played Corky, changed the way people looked at the chromosome abnormality, paving the way for roles such as Becky, the cheerleader with Down syndrome on "Glee." I was young and naïve. And I regret saying the things I did back then, especially when I look at my son Emmett. Because I know one day, someone will inevitably make fun of him, too.
Down syndrome seems to be much less of an enigma to the public conscious than it was when "Life Goes On" was airing on TV. And over the past several years, it seems that talk about the disorder is everywhere, especially in pop culture.
In 2010, online news site Jezebel posted an article about a controversial "Family Guy" episode that featured a character named Ellen with Down syndrome. In it, there was a joke about Ellen’s mom being the former governor of Alaska, which prompted Sarah Palin and her daughter Bristol to take to Facebook to comment on the episode, which also featured a song called, "Down Syndrome Girl." (It’s important to note that Ellen’s character was, in fact, voiced by someone with Down syndrome, though this still doesn’t excuse some of the tasteless jokes in the show.)
In 2011, the Boston Herald reported about GQ’s online article about the worst-dressed city in America, declaring that Boston suffered "… from a kind of style Down syndrome."
Last year, at least two news stories about Down syndrome went viral online: the inspirational high school basketball player who helped lead his team to the state championship and the server who defended a family who had a child with Down syndrome. And even this article about the possibility of wiping out Down syndrome altogether.
And even locally, two recent stories in the Time Free Press profiled the first-ever Down syndrome student to attend classes at Lee University’s campus and a Hixson High School football player with the disorder.
Whether it’s positive or negative, people are talking about Down syndrome in pop culture, which brings awareness to the topic. And overall, that’s a good thing.
But even though public perception of people with Down syndrome has changed in the past 20 years, there are still people out there who see the disorder as a curse, as something cruel and even subhuman, as something that is easy to make fun of because they simply don’t understand what it is. But as I’ve learned with my son Emmett, though there are setbacks and limitations—both physically and mentally—he has this light that shines, this brightness about him that is contagious to everyone he meets. There’s this positive energy to him that I hope he keeps with him for the rest of his life. I don’t know what the future holds for him. But as research and technology allow people living with Down syndrome to live longer, healthier lives, I believe Emmett will certainly be an example of all of the good that can come from something that can be so scary and misunderstood. Actually, he already is.
The Chattanooga Down Syndrome Society’s 13th annual Buddy Walk
On Saturday, Sept. 28, my family and I will be participating in the Chattanooga Down Syndrome Society’s 13th annual Buddy Walk at AT&T Field.
What: CDSS Buddy Walk
When: Saturday, Sept. 28, gates open at 11 a.m., walk begins at 11:30 a.m.
The event is a fundraiser to help CDSS promote education and outreach in the community.
Registration is at 11 a.m., and the walk begins at 11:30 a.m., followed by a complimentary pizza luncheon and an awards presentation. There will also be three bounce houses, batting cages, face painting, team photos, a silent auction and more.
For more information, go to CDSS’s website, where you can register.
Individual tickets are $5, a team of four is $15 and teams with up to 10 people are $40.
If you have a family member or friend who has Down syndrome, or even if you don’t, organize a team to advocate on behalf of all people with Down syndrome. Ask your friends, neighbors and family to sponsor you with pledges toward your walk to support the organization. The top three fundraising individuals or teams will receive top honors and be recognized at the 2013 CDSS Buddy Walk, receive a prize and be featured on the CDSS website.
If you choose not to participate in the walk but still want to help, click here, where you can donate money to my team or another team of your choice.
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.