On March 24, 2017, Joe Gibes posted an entry on this blog, entitled “A ‘disabled’ person speaks out against a particular form of discrimination.” That post featured links to several stories about Kathleen Humberstone, a young woman with Down Syndrome who spoke at a recent UN event commemorating World Down Syndrome Day, which was observed on March 21.
After reading through Joe’s post and the stories to which his post links, I’d like to add the following two very basic observations (which I will only state here – further elaboration shall have to await another time):
- OBSERVATION #1: Thankfulness and disability are entirely compatible – indeed, one can be genuinely thankful for one’s disability. “Thank you Down’s syndrome!” Kathleen says enthusiastically, in her prepared remarks for the UN event. It’s hard to imagine she doesn’t mean this sincerely.
- OBSERVATION #2: As Hans S. Reinders has said repeatedly, often the thing that people with profound intellectual disabilities need most is simply to be chosen as friends. This point is easily generalizable to persons with any kind of disability—very often, what we “need” most is simply friendship, not “healing” or “relief” or “freedom” from the (supposed) “burden” of disability itself.
With continued developments in prenatal genetic testing techniques, including the relatively recent advent of non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT), it has become even easier to detect, at earlier and earlier points in pregnancy, the presence of disabilities such as Down syndrome. And this, of course, opens the door to so-called “selective termination” of unborn children who test “positive” for such conditions.
For Denise Humberstone, Kathleen’s mom, this makes no sense whatsoever. Why shouldn’t we accept all persons, Denise wonders, including those with Down syndrome and other disabling conditions, with the same kind of unconditional love that we would offer to any other, nondisabled person?
“Whatever happened to unconditional love?” she asks. “When did society decide we should want and love a child only if it is as perfect as medical research allows?”
In a Facebook post written just prior to Kathleen’s speech at the UN event, Denise addresses the “unrealistic demands for perfection” that appear to drive so many of these decisions to abort unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome and other disabilities:
I’m also wondering if in parallel to scientific research, these unrealistic demands for perfection stem from the fact that we are also now living in a world where we can not only get anything we want off the internet but that item always comes with a return form should it not be up to your expectations. Not perfect? Bam! Return it, free-post, no questions asked, item will be replaced in no time….
What are we teaching our children? People are worthy of life and love only if they are perfect? We can’t cope with children unless they’re perfect? Your marriage/partnership won’t last unless your children are perfect? Siblings will be ok as long as they are all perfect? I can assure you that my friends are not happier because they don’t have a child with special needs…. There is always something to be unhappy about, it’s human nature.
So why can’t we just go back to the basics and try and love unconditionally? Why can’t we just deal with the hand we’ve been dealt… and rise up to the challenges that life throws at us?
Around the same time as Joe posted his blog entry about Kathleen Humberstone, quadriplegic and disability advocate Joni Eareckson Tada posted a blog entry about World Down Syndrome Day. Here’s what she wrote:
I love smiling children… the image imparts such hope and joy, reminding us we are all made in the image of God. I especially delight in the smile of a child with Down syndrome. Anyone who has rubbed shoulders with someone who has Down syndrome will rave about the love, openness, and zest for life they bring to every family. Their laughter and joy is infectious. Today, as we celebrate World Down Syndrome Day, I’m reminded of a touching video I saw two years ago – titled “Dear Future Mom,” it shows children and teens with Down syndrome. Each has something brief and sweet to say about their disability. Then, they look into the camera and address the worries of any pregnant woman who is fearful about carrying a child with Down syndrome.
This video blessed me so much, I just had to share it with you. Perhaps you know of an expectant mother who has learned her baby has a genetic disorder. Please share this with her – the smiles on the faces of these young people will ease fears and give hope, helping her welcome her precious baby into the world.
In the end, Kathleen Humberstone and the children and teens featured in “Dear Future Mom” remind us of what we all need the most: unconditional love.
 See, for example, his Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).