McGuire on Media

Sarah Palin and the media need to chill out about Down syndrome

Some might argue this isn’t my standard media blog fare, but the media and Sarah Palin need to chill out. Media commentators should help Palin find reasonable ground on her Down Syndrome son. Palin is now firing shots at the Family Guy TV show for mocking her Down syndrome toddler Tryg.

To set this up, here’s the background found in a Yahoo News story. 

The episode features the character Chris falling for a girl with Down syndrome. On a date, he asks what her parents do.

She replies: “My dad’s an accountant, and my mom is the former governor of Alaska.”

Palin called the bit “a kick in the gut.” I am genuinely concerned about Sarah Palin’s gut over the long term. She is going to find as Tryg gets older that some people will accept him, some will accommodate him, some will be afraid of him and yes, some people will even poke fun at him.

The actress who voiced the Down syndrome girl’s role, Andrea Fay Friedman who has Down syndrome, has spoken out and accused Palin of lacking a sense of humor. The young actress said, ” In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life.” She then took a gratuitous shot at Palin that I will omit because I want to keep this discussion on a reasonably high level. Interestingly, the New York Times omitted that zinger too.

Some background facts here  which seem necessary to the discussion:

  • I am quite liberal.
  • I am not a fan of Sarah Palin.
  • I have been vaguely concerned for months that Sarah Palin is using her son as a blunt instrument against her critics.
  • I have been a parent of a Down syndrome son for 31 years.
  • I was born with my own congenital handicap called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita
  • My wife and I subscribe wholeheartedly to the same philosophy that Friedman’s parent’s do; the only way to thrive with a Down syndrome child is with great humor, joy and love.
  • I am truly concerned that Palin is in for a long hard slog as a parent of a Down syndrome child if she continues to react to every comment that is remotely related to Down syndrome.

When our son Jason turned 18 we sought expert help to get him into the Social Security system. That expert told my wife Jean and I that we were different from most Down syndrome parents because we didn’t act as if “something bad has happened and somebody has to pay.”  

Sarah Palin is demonstrating some of those symptoms and a balanced, incisive media must cover that issue with perceptiveness, sensitivity and candor. The woman seems to want to be President of the United States How she handles a difficult family challenge is certainly fair game for the press and the public as we judge her fitness for office.

I have not seen the entire episode of Family Guy. I saw a clip of the Palin joke here and I’ve read some characterizations of the entire show that cast it in a negative light. But this gossip columnist’s observation really struck me: “And in fact, her character seems less a caricature of the mentally disabled than a response to the oft-repeated platitude that people with Down syndrome are sweeter or more loving than people without. By making Ellen mean and domineering, Family Guy may be making the point that people with intellectual disabilities inhabit the full range of human personality, and that we shouldn’t make assumptions about them because of their chromosomes.”

I must confess that malarkey about all Down syndrome people being sweeter and more loving than others makes me madder than, well, Sarah Palin. That’s just Horsefeathers. I have met more than a few Down Syndrome people who are what most of us would call “snots.” Jason is sweet and affectionate because he has been taught well, but I assure you he is one angry guy. He is mighty ticked off that he is different. He would desperately like to be normal. If Family Guy successfully burst that prejudiced view of Down syndrome folks, God love ’em.

If Sarah Palin wants to be an active advocate on Down syndrome issues she should be analyzing the entire episode of Family Guy and not just the small gratuitous shot at her. That particular comment was a “fly-by’ unworthy of her attention.

The major point for media is whether practitioners are going to let Palin become our nation’s Down-syndrome-advocate-in-chief. It appears she is vying to define Down syndrome. The condition is far too complex and varied in its impact for the media to allow her or anyone else to do that. Down syndrome people have the same wide range of abilities the normal functioning population has. From reading to independence, the abilities vary greatly. Perceptive media coverage must capture that truth.

Palin is not an expert on Down syndrome parenting in my eyes. She’s got at least 20 years to go. Raising a Down syndrome child is a bramble-filled journey from the first stages of grief, denial and acceptance to the challenges of adulthood.

Parents of a toddler DS child have countless laughs, cries and perplexing second-guesses to go before they can really appreciate the experience. Human nature is such that for the first few years you keep telling yourself, “This isn’t all that bad. He’s just like any other kid.” He’s not. He has Down syndrome and every human experience will be affected by that fact. By the time he’s 9 or 10, and you have fought the same battles over and over, your perspective starts to change.  You love the child more, but your frustration also mounts because he does not “get better.” 

I predict Palin will discover she will become a vastly different person as Tryg gets older and develops.  When Tryg is 17 and she’s fighting the same battles she fought when he was four, her sense of self as a parent and her level of advocacy will be dramatically changed. She’ll just be plain weary.

The taller a Down syndrome child gets, the more the community expects him to be “like other kids.” When he isn’t, parents go through the same grieving process they went through when the child was born.  Only the toughest parents avoid hopelessness and despair. To the extent my wife and I won the battle, we did it by being incredibly irreverent, funny and fanatically dedicated to the welfare of our other kids and each other. Our normal kids were instrumental too and they will have to be in Palin’s family too.

With a major political player experiencing Down syndrome in the family, the media will have a rare opportunity to candidly discuss the condition and its effects on families, Down syndrome individuals and our society. That conversation should be open and honest. The media cannot be intimidated every time Palin mentions or defends her Down syndrome son. When Palin makes major pronouncements about her son reporters should be duty-bound to explore her views with other Down syndrome parents and advocates.  The views on this subject are going to be as varied and textured as views are on any subject.

And for her sake, I pray Sarah Palin can pull back just a little and realize that every time Down syndrome is mentioned in popular media it is not, per se, bad. Humor, satire and popular media are among the best ways to generate progress. I will never forget the power of the early 90’s TV show, Life Goes On. It legitimized high achieving Down syndrome young adults like nothing else could. And it was not without controversy. Few things with good outcomes are.