Mary Engelbreit once suggested that “If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” In life, there are many times in which we, as humans, judge others before we really get to know them on a deeper level. Individuals with Down Syndrome are one group, in particular, who are frequently stereotyped and misunderstood due to their seemingly abnormal physical features and behavioral tendencies.

Beauty: not defined by chromosomes

Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder that occurs when there is an abnormal division on a cellular level, resulting in an abundance of genetic information linked to chromosome 21.

Down syndrome ranges in severity, but each individual with the genetic condition is subjected to lifelong intellectual challenges, developmental delays and a range of health problems. While the outlook for individuals with Down Syndrome may appear grim upon diagnosis, those with the disorder are actually very intelligent and with the proper care and developmental intervention, they can achieve their full potential and become active members in society.

Unfortunately, the media tends to look down upon those who are intellectually disabled and treat them as if they are so very different from those who are deemed neurotypical. A great deal of injustice exists towards those who are developmentally or physically challenged.

In today’s society, it is an unfortunate but a sad reality that individuals such as those with Down Syndrome are perceived as being retarded - and are treated as monsters. In one instance, a high school student in Kansas was urged (perhaps even forced) to remove a Varsity Letter his mom had sewn on his jacket, even though he was a valued player on the school’s basketball team.

While this situation might initially brush over people’s heads, there is more to it than first glance.

Michael Kelley is a student who was born with Down Syndrome as well as Autism. The teenager is an avid basketball fanatic and though he is not a member of the school’s Varsity team, he participates in an extracurricular basketball club for students with special needs.

Michael’s mother, Jolinda thought that her son should feel included, so she decided to purchase a varsity letter jacket for her son. Much to her surprise, the backlash for her seemingly harmless decision skyrocketed and made its way onto national news. According to Wichita East High School, only students who are members of varsity teams should be allowed to wear letters. Principal Ken Thiessen mentions that the school's administration has “considered (allowing special needs students to wear varsity letters) and our decision was no - that is not appropriate - because it is not a varsity-level competition,” KSN reports. There are two layers to this story, however, and I feel that only one is being outwardly discussed.

The main issue, as stated by the school board, is that Michael or any student for that matter should not be able to wear a varsity letter if he/she is not a member of a varsity sports team. If this matter alone was justification for bringing it to a national level, then there is something seriously wrong with our society. No, there is more to this situation than whether or not a student should be able to wear a stupid letter on a jacket. It is an issue that is not openly discussed, but very much needs to be addressed. The core issue is the fact that Michael is disabled, and that since he is “different,” that he should not be treated like a valued member of society and should therefore not be granted the privilege of wearing a varsity letter.

The real meat of the matter has nothing to do with basketball or a varsity letter. It has to do with the treatment of those individuals, like Michael, who are treated as if they are diseased because they have a condition that they have absolutely no control over. All people like Michael want, is to fit in and be treated like everyone else. Why is he to be subjected to misery over something he cannot control? The real issue is not the individuals the media points fingers at. It is, in fact, the media and those of us who think that individuals who suffer from disorders such as Down Syndrome or Autism, should be excluded from society.

Why we must look up instead of down if we are to progress

As irritating as it is to me, that discrimination such as this exists in the world, there is hope for individuals like Michael who do possess so very much knowledge, potential, and goodness within.

Even though in this particular situation the outcome was grim and Michael had to remove his jacket, it does not mean that the future for someone with Down Syndrome should be limited in any way. Megan Bomgaars is a young woman with Down Syndrome who gave a very inspirational speech on the ways in which school officials and society, for that matter, can better accommodate people like her and learn to treat them as they so rightfully deserve. She uses the phrase “Don’t limit me” to explain to viewers that she is exactly like everyone else in the world and is more similar than she is different. While watching Megan speak, I was in awe of her words, and by the way in which she spoke so eloquently.

Individuals with Down Syndrome tend to have difficulty speaking, and enunciating their words, but Megan surely does prove this common misconception wrong. Her words, appearance, and the way she presents her message are absolutely beautiful, and I just wish that society, and the media, would choose to portray this side . . . the upside of Down Syndrome, rather than what is commonly depicted in news articles.

Overall, it is fair to say that Down Syndrome is depicted quite poorly in the media, and this, in turn, causes individuals in society to have distorted perceptions about the disorder. It pains me that Down Syndrome is looked down upon in such a demeaning way. It pains me that the individuals stricken with this disorder are viewed as being retarded.

It pains me that they are treated as inferior, while we, the society that inflicts so much pain, judgment, and suffering upon them are deemed superior. In my opinion, it is society, not those with incurable disorders, who truly need to change. It is our mindset that must be cleansed, so that we see beauty, and not flaw within our fellow man. Until we can look at people who are suffering and offer a warm hand instead of a harsh judgment, there will be no true beauty or peace in the world. Ultimately it is the kindness within that can make the difference in one’s life. It is a smile, not a snide remark, that can help someone who is in pain, wipe their tears and smile. Until we can find kindness and share it with the world, more and more individuals with handicaps will be looked down upon, instead of raised up.

It has been said that “In order to receive much, we must give much," and this goes for the way we treat others. We are all people and should be treated with kindness, love, and respect, regardless of the number of chromosomes each of us has, or the IQ number we are labeled with.