Downright Joy

Discovering joy in unexpected places – a journey into Down's syndrome, Dyspraxia & Autism


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Lemons and Pomegranates

I recently took time out from caring for my disabled child who has Down’s syndrome and took a trip to Italy to visit family I had not seen for a very long time.

It was also an opportunity to spend more time with my eldest child, and introduce her to a whole new cultural experience as well as meet some of our family for the first time. For one entire, exhilarating week, we wandered the cobbled streets of Sorrento, savouring the sights and the sounds of this beautiful coastal town in the Bay of Naples. 

Lemon trees lined our pathways, Orange trees also. In the narrow back streets, shops and bars jostled for space and competed for customers, their baskets filled with ruby red pomegranates and lemons the size of grapefruits. Leather goods spilled out of doorways giving off an intoxicating air of ‘We are Quality and we know it.

Sorrento, according to Greek mythology, was home to Sirens, who lured sailors onto its rocks with their mesmerising songs. Today, tourists and locals alike gather above those rocks, lured not by song but by sunsets. A place to stand and pause, capturing a memory or two against the vibrant colours of blue, fiery reds, orange and deepest yellow hues that fill the skies.

A short train ride along the coast finds the ancient city of Pompeii and its neighbour Herculaneum. In AD 79, a cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, known to locals as His Majesty, destroyed the lives of over 16000 inhabitants and the livelihoods of those fortunate enough to escape the suffocating clouds of ash or the pyroclastic flow.  Wandering through Pompeii’s ruins, our local tour guide brought this legendary city to life as she told us stories of some of the people who once lived and worked here. The rich, the poor, the everyday and ordinary lives and their extraordinary blueprints for so much that we know and use today. Who knew, for example that house builders in Roman Pompeii knew the design for LEGO centuries before LEGO did? Our guide told us much of what she knew; human stories of human lives, achievements, hardships, joys and sorrows. Baking bread, shopping for clothes, going to the theatre, gossiping in the town square. Every day life of men, women and children, living and thriving in community.

‘Lego’ type design found on building blocks in Pompeii

One of the most remarkable outcomes, at least to me, of the story of the Volcanic eruption in AD79 is how the surrounding area eventually recovered from this catastrophe. The whole region is famed for its produce. Olive groves aplenty, vineyards, oranges, lemons and much more are to be found on the slopes of Vesuvius in abundance. And, according to historians and geologists, the land became far more fertile as a result of the eruption. The economy recovered relatively quickly and future generations enjoyed the spoils from the enhanced rich soil. They thrived. His Majesty Vesuvius brought life as well as death.

When my daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, was born I was given a poem. The poem was about a planned holiday to Italy being diverted in the air and landing in Holland instead. This poem is well known in the Down’s syndrome community and is a bit like marmite in the way it divides opinion. Personally, I found it to be well meaning, but deeply disappointing. No offence to the Dutch; I’d love to visit their country too one day. But I will not allow anyone to steal Italy from my heart or my dreams.  Having a child with Down’s syndrome is not a diversion or even a different destination; who knows where any of us will end up in life after all? Neither is it a catastrophe as some think or express.

What happened in Pompeii was a catastrophe. Having a child with a disability is not.

I do not minimise the challenges that come with bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome. I never have, I hope. The opposite in fact. I have no desire to ‘lure’ any parent faced with the news that their baby might have a disability into a false sense of security, when the journey is clearly fraught with, at times, hard, rocky places. But modern day Sirens still go off where disability or, in particular, a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome is concerned; bringing fear, panic and urgency in decision making. They need always to be tempered, in my opinion, with a softer, sweeter song. A song not of falsities or deception, but of hope. There is still life to be had, to be lived, to be enjoyed. And in many ways it is a life more vibrant and verdant than before.

I do wish that my daughter’s life, and the lives of others born or unborn with disabilities are seen first and foremost as the humans that they are. Perhaps, if they were, there would be no need for a Down’s syndrome community or a disabled community.

Just a community would be enough. 

A community more welcoming, more supportive, more vibrant, more fertile, more prosperous and hope-filled for all its inhabitants, its humans, than ever existed before. Thriving.


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Honoured

Image: Hans Braxmeier (Pixabay)

A funny thing happened the other day…. I think I may have attended the Best Wedding Ever. Or at least, the Best Reception Ever. The actual Wedding took place two years ago but plans for a large celebration were scuppered by Covid. Thankfully, seasons change and the Bride and Groom could now be truly honoured by many more than were able to attend the original ceremony.

I’ve since been reflecting on why this celebration felt so special. Of course, all wedding celebrations are special, but this particular wedding celebration was like no other. For a start, the Bride and Groom had Down’s syndrome. How many weddings have you been to where that was the case?

It was more than a celebration. More than a just a party. A joy filled day and night of people with Down’s syndrome – and there were many – and people without Down’s syndrome, quite simply enjoying one another’s company and letting their hair down.  All the usual things you might expect to find at a wedding; colourful outfits, smart suits, table favours, speeches – including the best one I’ve ever heard from a Groom, cheesy wedding songs and disco lights…. Simple extravagance. Wedding-y.

Yet also quite profound.

Alongside those who were getting married, giving speeches or playing musical instruments, living their lives to the fullest, planning and dreaming of their own special day, was my daughter who also has Down’s syndrome. And though I do not possess a crystal ball, I am realistic enough to know that she is unlikely to realise those same dreams, even if she were able to dream them in the first place. She is far less able than many with Down’s syndrome. Yet, in that wedding reception I felt a sense of love and care towards her that I’ve rarely come across anywhere else outside our own community.  As she wandered around the tables of seated guests in her own autistic, non-verbal yet noisy world, present yet elsewhere; I sensed a belonging. No-one stared or looked away as they often do in these situations. They smiled. Not out of pity either, but out of love. They reached out to her without hesitation. They honoured her just as they honoured the other guests who had Down’s syndrome. We did not strive for inclusion. That was a natural given. And though I joked about ‘life goals’ when she inadvertently led the Conga from her wheelchair, it wasn’t a joke at all. Even the DJ said it was the best Conga he’d ever seen.  

At breakfast the next day, I saw very few hangovers, though we had all enjoyed plenty of wine.

Instead, I saw other guests who also had Down’s syndrome, excitedly talking about when it would be their turn. Their wedding day. Even if they hadn’t actually got a partner. They were now daring to dream the same dream.

This Wedding was not a celebration. It was an Honouring Ceremony.

A safe place to be. An honouring place to be. Where the least became first.

A day when people who have Down’s syndrome were truly honoured, not routinely mocked, feared, shunned or despised. Yet, within the space of just forty-eight hours, this realisation came home to me and my family with a brutal bang.

My eldest child, just 12 years old and a young carer to her sibling who has Down’s syndrome, soon found that the Wedding Bubble had burst. Saturday’s honouring of people with Down’s syndrome, people whom she loves, turned into Monday’s mocking of them.

A fellow classmate, in their impatience over tech that wasn’t functioning correctly, directed two words at my daughter. Forcefully.

‘That computer’s got Down syndrome,”

They said it twice. Once to her, then to an adult. For laughs.

Except my daughter didn’t laugh. She cried. She left the room in shock and missed the start of a test she had been about to take. The other child was taken aside, reprimanded and shown how their words could never be funny, only hurtful. Mercifully, restorative justice meant that heartfelt apologies were made and fully accepted. The child was genuinely contrite and, they felt bad.  

A lesson learned the hard way, yet there should always be room for a way back. Room for restoration.

Down’s syndrome.

A child used those words. As a slur, or, at best, in what they thought was an acceptable joke. Words that were their first choice. A specific, identifiable condition. Down’s syndrome. Not Learning Disabled or another condition.  They targeted Down’s syndrome. And the irony of them having their own Learning Difficulty made that all the more distressing.  How does a twelve year old learn to say such a thing? To target a group of people so thoughtlessly, or so heartlessly? For laughs. I can only think it is because they had heard it before. Likely many times. Something like this….

Down’s syndrome = equals stupid.

Down’s syndrome = worthless.

Or, perhaps more likely in this instance….

Down’s syndrome = funny.

A familiar portrayal that’s been on run and repeat for as long as I can remember.

And so, in response, I do the one thing I can do to alter this course.

I honour my precious Down’s syndrome child. And, before the entire community points out my language (or apostrophe use – hey I’m in the UK, it’s what we do), I used the words exactly how I meant them. My precious Down’s syndrome child. My precious child with Down’s syndrome. One and the same. Mine. Precious.

It is my honour to honour her. To serve her. To get on my knees when she needs me to. To set aside the things I might like to do so that I can be there for her, with her, alongside her or right behind her. Never in some kind of martyrdom, simply a response to what caring for another really is. A privilege.

To honour her because she exists, because she breathes, because she is.

I am all for honouring people with Down’s syndrome. Others have, and continue to set Down’s syndrome apart from the rest of society in brutal ways, both in word and deed. They do not honour people like my daughter or those at the Wedding. And as I doubt that achieving equality can ever balance the scales of this injustice, so I determine to set her apart and tip the scales in the opposite direction.

I will honour her. To honour is so much more than to celebrate. It is not dependent on any accomplishment, however noteworthy. The wedding was an honouring occasion. It was filled with love and kindness. I hope there will be many more weddings for people with Down’s syndrome, (and I really hope I’m invited to some of them too!)

I’m so done with the push for inclusion. I’m done with the push for equality if I’m honest. In all walks of life. Truly honouring someone who has been dishonoured brings restoration. And when something is restored, it means it is set right. It is no longer unequal. The scales are re-calibrated.

Honouring that comes from a loving heart can achieve so much more than any equality act or piece of legislation.

Restoring honour to those who have been the most wronged, the most dishonoured, is a good place to start.

People with Down’s syndrome are, I believe, close to, if not at the top of that list. Hierarchy takes many forms.

And there is always a way back, if we allow it. Wrongs can be righted.

The dishonoured can be honoured and restorative justice can work for the good of us all.

Restorative justice

noun

  • a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.