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It's World Down Syndrome Day!

nbarker's picture

As such, there's been a video with Olivia Wilde floating around that's stirred up controversy (what else?). This is a really reasoned take on it that illustrates issues of representation.


lindsey's picture

 While I agree with the sentiment of this article and felt very conflicted about the PSA, I also have some reservations about the interpretation of the PSA by this author. When I first watched this video, I had a very different interpretation than the author of the article.  I thought that the juxtaposition of the voice of a person with Down syndrome and body of a non-disabled person (until the very end of the video) was meant to make the viewer, and society, question who was "capable" and who could lead the life being described.  While I can totally see the interpretation of the video being that disability was being eliminated and that Olivia Wilde was the "object of a disabled woman's aspirations", and if this was what was meant by the ad I definitely find that to be problematic, I also think it is important to recognize that there are various lenses through which the PSA can be viewed.    

Also, as a side note, my brother Chris once gave a presentation to a class in high school about his experiencing in the acting world and being a disabled actor.  The very first line in his presentation was "When I act I pretend I don't have Down syndrome".  He then went on to discuss how having Down syndrome meant that he didn't get the same opportunities as non-disabled actors for a variety of reasons.  In the context of both the PSA and my knowledge of Chris as an incredibly confident person who embraces his disability, I wonder what Chris meant by saying that he pretends he doesn't have Down syndrome when he's acting- does he truly pretend that he doesn't have an extra 21st chromosome, or is he talking about the stigma and social connotations of DS?  I've always interpreted it as the latter- but reading this article makes me think about how other people, particularly people who don't know Chris as well as I do, may interpret his representation of being a disabled actor and specifically the line "when I act, I pretend I don't have Down syndrome".    

nbarker's picture

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Lindsey! One of the big gaps I see in disability discussions is so little that we hear from actual people with intellectual disabilities--so it's great to hear what your brother might contribute to this conversation. I'm not really sure what I think of the ad myself, as I can see both sides to the argument pretty equally. To me, the ad actually rang pretty true, and was a remarkable way to turn the "normative gaze" on its head. I also understand Emily Ladau's arguments though, and her perspective is at least somewhat colored by the fact that she's used to dealing with visual discrimination every day (she's a wheelchair user) and I'm not. 

The bottom line is, however, that the word still needs to get out. I don't feel like this is an actively harmful ad by any means--and in fact, really makes you stop and question what you think and assume about someone based on their appearance, which seems to automatically index assumptions. Disability is so incredibly complex and multifaceted and we need to listen to more perspectives. One criticism of the ad that I've seen is that it's been hard to find out who is the woman with Down Syndrome at the end of the ad--when most people know who Olivia Wilde is, and most of the press has been about her, with little to no mention of the woman who is voicing the ad herself. I can't see this ad as ill-intentioned as was a panicky response-judgement I saw happening on Facebook (as is wont to happen on social media) 

It's not an easy answer. Ladau makes great points, and a lot of interesting notes about disability representation that ring really true to me. But at the same time, I can't "condemn" something wholesale that has such a potential to be a force for good, We need to push back on the normative representations of disability, and question how they work, but the trend of identity politics to condemn something wholesale is counterproductive too. This really needs to be a case of "yes, and..."