How One TV Show Impacted My Daughter With Down Syndrome
While thousands of families anxiously wait to see if “Born This Way” will be renewed for season 5, I want to thank A&E and the cast. “Born This Way” has changed my family’s lives. And we are just one of many.
The show is ground breaking.
It is fascinating.
It is illuminating.
It is transformative.
It is educational.
And most of all — it is real.
That may sound dramatic, but believe me, it is true.
Our daughter who has Down syndrome was 15 when “Born This Way” first came out. My family really did not know what to expect when the series premiered. But when it did, on December 8, 2015, we were blown away.
For the first time in our daughter’s life, we saw families and self-advocates with Down syndrome sharing their lives on TV. We saw discussions about friendships, medical issues, career dreams, work, dating, love, marriage, driving, independence, moving away from home, parental guidance, parental fears and so many things that people like my family think about and struggle with on a daily basis.
Considering that people with disabilities are the largest and most ignored minority in the world, it was about time! Having a cast made up of people with significant disabilities was a monumental first. Being Hispanic, I know what it is like to grow up not seeing people who look like yourself in the media. I am so grateful that due to “Born This Way,” and the shows that have debuted since, my daughter is now seeing people who look like her, and some of her friends, on TV.
This show changed our lives. How? Raising a teen is challenging for most parents. When you throw in the complication of having a disability, it can become challenging to the infinite power. The unknowns keep coming: dating, love, careers, jobs, how to guide and how to let go. Seeing six very unique families showing everyday real-life situations was invaluable to us. When a young man became interested in our daughter, we had some reference points to consider. Our daughter loves the show, and she soaked in everything. We were able to discuss certain nuanced boy-girl situations with her using specific examples from the show. For a concrete, visual, and literal learner, that is invaluable. In addition, the career exploration, job interviews and dreams of independence rang true. As a family, this was must watch TV. There are not many shows now a days that are must watch family TV. And it crosses disability categories. I know of friends who have children on the autism spectrum and other disabilities who watched “Born This Way” as a family.
Hearing the self-advocates personal interviews, and seeing their interactions and friendships is paramount. What many experts often forget is the parent/family perspective is important as well. Having the parent and family perspective honestly shown was very illuminating for my husband and me. That cannot be easy — opening your lives up like that. For their honesty, we are very thankful.
The cast is diverse. Black, Hispanic and Asian families are all represented along with traditional white families. A single parent is shown. Cultural differences are not hidden and not overplayed. The complications of growing up in a divorced household are shown. Diverse personalities, parenting styles, and levels of acceptance are shown. A young boy named Rocco has been added to the cast to make sure younger families are included. Siblings are not a main part of the show, but they are portrayed, which is important. One of the siblings is gay, which adds a wonderful layer to the diversity.
“Born This Way” touched many outside of the disability world, which to me places the show firmly in the monumental category. I remember walking a few miles from my house and meeting a neighbor for the first time. We talked a long time and somehow “Born This Way” came up. This person, who has no personal link to the world of disabilities, was channel surfing and happened to come across an episode in season one. They were fascinated, fell in love with the cast members, and became a fan. This was important because this person’s perception of what is possible as far as careers, independence, love and marriage were forever changed. I know CEOs, educators, and non-profit leaders who also love “Born This Way.” Who knows how that will affect their interactions at work, their place of worship and just being a citizen. It was also important because it is proof this show is not just for people within the reach of the disability community.
Speaking of CEOs and the real world, the fact that over 300,000 people with disabilities were hired in new jobs in 2016, one year after “Born This Way” debuted, is monumental. That number was four times the number of the previous year. While there is no way to know the exact statistical connection to the show, there has to be some connection between the awareness “Born This Way” raised and that amazing statistic. For those who don’t know, 80 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, so raising employment rates is a very large priority for all.
Now let’s look at other profound impacts. Powerful Public Service Announcements like the one some of the parents did to advocate for inclusion in school are still circulating well years later. Emmy wins! Critics Choice awards! I will never forget that first Emmy win. It felt like we had all won an Emmy. Success for one equals success for all! Each cast member has blossomed as a public speaker and that has translated to them being ambassadors of sorts for young people all over the world. The show is now available on DVD, and was shown in numerous countries. I am not sure how many countries, but I know Sandra McElwee, Sean’s mom, has received fan letters from Canada, Columbia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, Spain, Ireland, England, Scotland, Norway, Israel, New Zealand, Australia and Japan. That is incredible and life changing for so many people globally!
Remarkable shows have the right casts. “Born This Way” hits the mark showing young adults with very different personalities, interests and dreams. Here are just some of my favorite moments.
1. Sean McElwee in a job interview. He sweetly, and honestly tells the interviewer that he sometimes makes mistakes. When I saw that I melted and thought, who has not made mistakes? Who wouldn’t hire him right then and there? He did not get that job.
2. Sean McElwee and his parents going through his hospital experience for his hearing surgery, and clearly showing he is his own guardian.
3. Christina’s love story with Angel — from beginning through season 4. She and her father, Mario, had some of the most amazing parental talks ever shown on TV. He wins the most admired dad award from my informal poll.
4. Christina’s dream to ballroom dance, and how that is fulfilled.
5. Rachel’s honest struggle with food, eating and her weight. This is shown from her perspective, and her parents’ view.
6. Rachel working at her office job. She is a valued team member with a non-stereotypical job.
7. Meghan and Steven’s dating story. From beginning to end, this was informative for self-advocates, and their families.
8. Meghan’s determination to get married and have a baby. I loved the way her mother, Kris, showed Meghan what having a baby is really like.
9. Meghan’s business Megology and then her amazing career turn with Sanrio.
10. Steven and Sean’s trial period living together. Their parents’ idea of renting a house was brilliant.
11. John’s pursuit of a career as a rapper, another non-stereotypical job. His father’s confession during this time was surprising and touching.
12. John’s process to see if he was ready to drive. This was good for so many to see.
13. Elena’s journey coming out of her shell. Contrary to popular belief, not all people with Down syndrome are jovial all the time and go around hugging everyone they meet.
14. Elena’s road to finding a job she likes, and love.
15. Rocco’s parents advocated for his inclusion in school.
In a world that seems more and more transactional, “Born This Way” cannot be properly measured for its advocacy and deeply impactful societal changes. I, and many fans, ask A&E to please consider this when making the renewal decision. Give it another season, and then more after that. You will not be sorry. You will instead be known as major game changers for millions of people who have very few people in their corner right now. The last unknown civil rights struggle needs your spotlight A&E.
Thanks for caring.
From my heart,
A version of this story originally appeared on Born Fabulous Podcast.
Image credit: Greta Harrison