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Kill Your TV: Born Identity 

Wednesday, Dec 16 2015
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Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite developmentally-disabled clients are usually people with Down's Syndrome. So this column is going to be opinionated, heavily biased, and entirely subjective.

A&E has a new reality TV show called Born This Way, which follows the lives of several adults with Down's. I was scared to watch it for several reasons. I figured it would be sappy and patronizing. Past attempts at showcasing anyone with a disability on TV have always ended up that way. Now, after watching one episode — the first, which aired last week — I can say that the results are mixed.

But let's start with some grim facts about Down's, or Trisomy 21. It was named for John Langdon Down, who also came up with the term "mongoloidism" because, being a 19th-century upper-class white male, he was a scientific racist. He had adopted Johann Blumenbach's handy hierarchy of racial intelligence, with Asians falling to the very lowest rung. Since people with Trisomy 21 have epicanthic folds in their eyelids, he thought they resembled Asians and were therefore "mongoloid." Down was actually pretty progressive in other areas, and the fact that he even paid any attention to people who were born with an extra chromosome, let alone described their condition, at least lent them some semblance of humanity.

They are not always regarded that way. From Belgium to the Islamic State, many societies euthanize babies born with Down's. Things are barely different here: I had a coworker in her 20s who gave birth to a daughter with Down's. While she was in recovery after labor, a nurse with a clipboard robotically told her the news, adding, "Here's what you can do: You can put it [yes, she said "it"] in a state hospital. You can put it up for adoption. Or you can keep it." Keeping the baby was her last suggestion, an afterthought. This was in 2006.

Here in the United States, an estimated 92 percent of babies whose prenatal screenings reveal Down's are eventually aborted. I am adamantly pro-choice, but equally adamant about people at least understanding Trisomy 21 before they make the choice to abort. (Also, please, please don't allow the only people to actually have children with Down's be the Sarah Palins of the world, mmkay?)

With that said, it is my hope that Born This Way will give people who have never had any exposure to Down's the tools to make better decisions around what to do when faced with the diagnosis. And there, the show did not disappoint. Born This Way takes place in L.A., and highlights seven different men and women along with their parents — people who are very candid about what it is like to raise a child with Down's.

There's John, the funniest and most outgoing one, who's also a rapper; Cristina, who hails from a tight-knit Spanish family; Megan, an incredibly ambitious entrepreneur who wants to be a film producer; Sean, a horndog who is constantly on the prowl for women; Rachel, who is boy-crazy and should probably get together with Sean; Steven, who has something called "mosaic Down's," which makes him very "high-functioning" (a very un-P.C. term in the disability community); and finally Elena, who is my favorite.

Elena was born in Japan, where people with Down's are severely marginalized. She has a lot of emotional scars from being teased and abused. She's my favorite because she doesn't fit the stereotype of people with the disability. If I had a dime for every time someone told me, "Oh I love people with Down's; they are so loving and sweet..." No, they are all not like that. Some are assholes. Some are cranky 24-7. Some do not want to talk to strangers, let alone hug them. Some are depressed. Some hate their lives. Some hate the fact that they are different. Elena is working through all of these things and it's refreshing to see something like that on TV, sad as it can be. It's real.

Born This Way's challenge will be to see whether or not anyone gives a shit about these adults and their lives. It's one thing to create a didactic pastiche of disabled lives, yet another to inject some Real Housewives intrigue and drama. No one seems to be talking about this show. I couldn't find it on my illegal streaming sites. There isn't even a Wikipedia page for it. Methinks it will be terminated early, and that will be a shame.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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