The theme for World Down Syndrome Day 2024 is “End the Stereotypes”. It’s in our human nature to judge and pigeonhole people. We may do so based on many things including a person’s appearance, behaviour, habits, possessions, fashion style or social status.

All too often, people assume that people with a disability are a drain on society or have nothing of value to offer. They create an “us and them” scenario. People frequently don’t take the time to get to know people with disabilities, to find out about their skills and talents that could be a valuable asset to their organisation or business or to listen to their opinions, hopes and dreams. If a person’s skill set is limited in some way, it could be expansive in other techniques that we haven’t even considered. When people face limitations, they don’t take things for granted but adapt, develop and grow. We can all help to teach each other and support each other to become more fulfilled people and to achieve our goals through sharing our talents and skills.

A little bit EXTRAORDINARY helps people to ditch the stereotypes about people, including those with Down’s Syndrome. It celebrates individuality, inclusivity, talents, kindness, empathy and reaching for the stars. It reminds people that there are many avenues of aspiration for people with Down’s Syndrome to follow. Just look at Co. Tyrone fashion model Kate Grant, Belfast actor James Martin and Westmeath’s Fintan Bray, who last week became the first person with Down’s syndrome to be elected to a (senior) political position in Ireland. This shows there are always barriers to break, limits to overcome, dreams to make real. Role models arise in all walks of life to show us there is nothing we cannot achieve if we put our hearts and minds into it.

Have you ever made an assumption about someone and then been surprised or shocked to find that the person is nothing like what you first thought? I think everyone has been guilty of that at some stage. I know I have. I have also been misjudged by people and that has upset me at times, making me more aware of how I should not judge others. It has also taught me not to let the opinion of someone who doesn’t know me personally ruin my day, but it can be frustrating if someone’s ill-informed opinion of you thwarts your progress in some way, perhaps in an educational or workplace setting.

These situations are a lesson to “never judge a book by its cover”. We never know what inward struggles any person is dealing with at any one time. We need to be aware of how our assumptions, behaviour, attitude and communication towards an individual could affect them either positively or negatively. We also need to remember that people have a right to freedom of expression through their appearance and behaviour, but this should never cause harm to another. You might dislike the latest fashion craze while others adore it. You might think a person has bad taste, but they could be thinking the same about you! It’s all about opening your eyes, heart and mind to a broader perspective, greater acceptance and deeper understanding.

An unkind word or action could be the tipping point for an already highly stressed or depressed person to feel that life has dealt them one blow too many. When we form judgements about people in our minds, we need to pause, reflect and reassess. Empathy – where you try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to see how a situation or life might be for them – can help with this. How would you behave or react or deal with their circumstances? How would you want other people to treat you if you had Down’s syndrome?

There is a difference between an initial, deeply intuitive insight about a person that rings true compared with a superficial, snap judgement. You might see a beautiful woman and think she must be a really horrible person or really stupid. You might see a gorgeous man and think he is “Mr Perfect” but he has narcissistic personality disorder. You might see someone who acts super confidently, but inside they are nervous, insecure and desperate to fit in. You might see someone with Down’s syndrome and think they can’t communicate or are unemployable. You might hear a person shouting and think they are aggressive and nasty, but you have no idea of the long-term unfair treatment they have received or the emotional trauma they don’t know how to heal. Sometimes an outburst of anger is really a manifestation of mounting stress or fear. We need to stop stereotyping people.

I mentioned the phrase “never judge a book by its cover”, but I hope the beautiful artwork by Gráinne Knox on the cover of our book A little bit EXTRAORDINARY entices you to open it and read a rhyming story that entertains, educates, inspires and helps to #EndTheStereotypes for people with Down’s Syndrome.

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