Guest Author - Monica J. Foster
Down syndrome is a developmental disability that occurs when an individual has three, rather than two, copies of the 21st genetic chromosome. This additional genetic material alters the course of development and causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome, the most commonly occurring chromosomal condition, according to the National Down Syndrome Society. One in every 691 babies is born with Down syndrome and there are more than 400,000 people living with Down syndrome in the United States. Down syndrome touches the loves of people of all races, ethnicities and economic levels. The incidence of births of children with Down syndrome increases with the age of the mother. However, 80% of children with Down syndrome are born to women under 35 years of age with higher fertility rates in recent years.
People with Down syndrome have shown an increased risk for certain medical conditions such as congenital heart defects, respiratory and hearing problems, Alzheimer's disease, childhood leukemia, and thyroid conditions. Many of these conditions are now treatable, though, so most people with Down syndrome lead relatively healthy lives.
Prior to the 1970s, when a child was born with Down Syndrome, they were typically shut away and institutionalized prior to the family bonding with the child for what medical experts called ‘everyone’s best interest’ since the child was thought to have intellectual learning delays, an inability to learn to be independent and at risk for a host of additional medical issues.
Since this shift in philosophy of people with disabilities being seen as mere ‘burdens’, children with Down Syndrome have proven themselves countless times to have the ability to learn when provided with an environment supportive of their learning abilities. They can fully participate in some way in public and private education programs. Educators and researchers are still unfurling discoveries of the full potential people with Down Syndrome can make.
Many families began to realize and are still realizing that people with Down Syndrome bring much joy to those they encounter, have the ability to express themselves well, and function well within the community with the proper supports. As families began making the decision to keep their children with Down Syndrome and raise them as they would a child without the disease they have become an accepted and valuable part of society.
It is not uncommon to see families going about their lives while including their children affected by Down Syndrome, or adults with Down Syndrome leading full lives on their terms, living independently in the community – with and without supports, having productive jobs and experiencing quality relationships of their choosing. People with Down syndrome, young and old, have feelings just like everyone else in the population. They experience the full range of emotions. They respond to positive expressions of friendship and they are hurt and upset by inconsiderate behavior.
A few of the common physical traits of Down syndrome are low muscle tone, small stature, an upward slant to the eyes, and a single deep crease across the center of the palm. Every person with Down syndrome is a unique individual and may possess these characteristics to different degrees or not at all. Life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has increased dramatically in recent decades - from 25 in 1983 to 60 or older today.
People with Down syndrome attend school, even secondary education programs, hold competitive jobs, participate in important decisions that affect their lives and independence, as well as contribute to society in as many valuable ways as anyone with or without a disability. All people with Down syndrome experience some cognitive delays, but the effect is usually mild to moderate. The delays don’t express the fullness of the many strengths and talents that each individual person can uniquely possess. They are as different as snowflakes. Quality educational programs, a stimulating and supportive home environment, good health care, and positive support from family, friends and the community enable people with Down Syndrome to develop their full potential and lead fulfilling lives as productive citizens and self-advocates. It is important that people with Down Syndrome lead lives with the expectation of success, not solely a life based on dependence and perceived or documented weaknesses.