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How Viral Videos Shape Perceptions of People With Down Syndrome

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Down syndrome is a genetic disorder resulting from a trisomy of chromosome 21. It presents itself with varying levels of intellectual disability, as well as physical attributes such as almond-shaped eyes, a flat nasal bridge, and sometimes heart defects.

You might have learned these facts in a biology class.

The average person’s understanding of Down syndrome spans the depth of a single unit of course content, but more concerning to me is another means through which people are exposed to Down syndrome: the viral video.

The girl who gets asked to the school dance. The student who makes a half-court shot at the buzzer. The special education teacher who invites her students to participate in her wedding. The couple crowned homecoming king and queen. These stories involving children and young adults with Down syndrome have swept the internet, presenting Down syndrome from a single framework, which I call the “Cuteness Factor.” 

The “Cuteness Factor” serves as click bait, drawing the person into these stories and videos.

You have to see this video of a girl with Down syndrome crying when she gets asked to homecoming. It’s so cute!

This little girl with Down syndrome said her favorite part of her teacher’s wedding was the mashed potatoes. How adorable!

Instead of these young people with Down syndrome being seen as individuals, they are grouped into a category of “cuteness” that is often explored simply for viewing pleasure. They are backed into the viral video corner, to be watched for two minutes and gushed about, along with videos of small dogs or babies. No one seems to care to understand what deep connection the high schooler with Down syndrome must have with her boyfriend to cry tears of joy when asked to the school dance. No one cares to understand what was behind such an overwhelming moment. What’s worse is a highly visible progressive media outlet reported on this video in a manner that further reduced the teen with Down syndrome into a simple spectacle. The outlet reported comments from the student’s peers, without a single comment from the student herself. To the outside viewer, this can further the perception that a person with Down syndrome is a spectacle to be viewed instead of an active agent in his or her own life.

I believe the path of belittling individuals with Down syndrome via viral stories spirals continuously downward. If a person with Down syndrome is no more than cute, they become a spectacle. If they are a spectacle, it is OK to laugh at them, right? If they are no more than a joke, how can they possibly lead a “normal” life? Thus, the emergence of the next type of Down syndrome-related viral video: a person with Down syndrome shows they lead a life of capability and talent, and social media responds with shock.

Can you believe that couple with Down syndrome was elected homecoming king and queen?

People with Down syndrome can play basketball?

Many people might assume if students with Down syndrome are elected to positions at their school, that their peers must have decided to band together in order to celebrate said person. The thought rarely dawns on the viewer that perhaps those individuals with Down syndrome are actually popular, that their personalities mix well with their peers, and they enjoy each other’s presence. Perhaps they were elected based on a merit their peers recognize, and the motivation behind the vote was far from pity. I truly wish stories like this stopped shocking the world, stopped eliciting a “how sweet” response from the viewer, stopped rising to viral status. I wish the world did not deem a situation that otherwise would be normal and un-newsworthy if in regards to the general population as abnormal if in regards to someone with Down syndrome.

And yes, a person with Down syndrome has talents. I did not watch the video of the basketball player making the amazing shot and think, “I can’t believe he could do that.” When I first saw that video, I thought, “If that person can make those amazing shots, how come his coach didn’t let him play in the game sooner?”

Please don’t ever be shocked at the talent of a person with Down syndrome. This means you have already prescribed to the notion that the person is incapable. Instead, be shocked that people with Down syndrome are often provided such limited opportunity in their daily lives to prove themselves capable. Be shocked at the system, not at them.

The more hits these viral videos and stories get, the more it encourages a warped perception of people with Down syndrome. The adult lives of individuals with Down syndrome are no longer enticing. Since they stopped being “cute,” we need not mind the individual’s journey to have a career, to have a family, to travel, to meet new people, to make new and lasting connections that come with age. This is the warped perception I believe the advent of the viral video has solidified.

The reason I recognize the problem with these viral videos and choose to speak about it is because my younger sister has Down syndrome. I can tell you exactly why my sister is not defined by the “Cuteness Factor,” why she doesn’t deserve to be pitied or to be the target of laughter, why she does not lack capability.

My sister isn’t cute, at least not in the way puppies or babies are. My sister is beautiful. She radiates beauty in the way that she loves, in her understanding that a smile, hug, or perfectly-timed joke can change the course of a day. (My sister is quite the comedian. Seriously, her timing is impeccable. Note the distinction between laughing with somebody and laughing at somebody.)

My sister does not receive my pity. She receives my help with some daily tasks, but never my pity. No one should be pitied for their needs, because every single person on this earth needs support in one way or another in their daily life. These needs vary from person to person, because we are all individuals. Whether it’s a roommate making sure you get out of bed in the morning or someone providing you a meal, these are needs you may have that someone is helping to fulfill. For the same reason, my sister should not be pitied for her needs, and please do not celebrate me for helping to meet them. She and I are on the same playing field. We are both just two sisters who love and support each other in different ways.

My sister is capable. She is capable of performing in dance recitals. She is capable of jumping into our pool on a hot summer day. She is capable of singing the entirety of Tom Petty’s greatest hits album. She is capable of being a member of her choir at school. She is capable of making honor roll. She is capable of eliciting respect.

What I want the world to understand is people with Down syndrome are no different from you and me. I want society and social media to recognize the individuality of each person with Down syndrome. Break the negative viral video spiral and take the time to get to know people with Down syndrome on an individual basis. If you want to understand a person’s perspective, what a person cares about, desires, hates, what makes them laugh — then you have to get to know them. Be an active member of the disability community in your area. Join Best Buddies. Help at Special Olympics or special recreation events. Volunteer at a group home. If nothing else, seek out videos that tell the story of a person’s individuality from their own perspective. Though few and far between, these are the videos worth watching.

People with Down syndrome and other disabilities are individuals. Not “cute.” Not a spectacle. Not someone to be pitied. They are just them. You are just you. And that’s pretty cool.

Image via Contributor.

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Originally published: November 8, 2016
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