Down Syndrome Children

Jon Will, the eldest of my four children, turns 21 this week and on this birthday, as on every other workday, he will commute by subway to his job delivering mail and being useful in other ways at the National Institutes of Health.

The fact that Jon is striding into a productive adulthood with a spring in his step and Baltimore’s Orioles on his mind is a consummation that could not have been confidently predicted when he was born. Then a doctor told his parents that their first decision must be whether or not to take Jon home.

Jon has Down Syndrome, a chromosomal defect involving varying degrees of mental retardation and physical abnormalities. Jon lost, at the instant he was conceived, one of life’s lotteries, but he also was lucky: His physical abnormalities do not impede his vitality and his retardation is not so severe that it interferes with life’s essential joys–receiving love, returning it, and reading baseball box scores.

One must mind one’s language when speaking of people like Jon. He does not “suffer from” Down Syndrome. It is an affliction, but he is happy — as happy as the Orioles’ stumbling season will permit. You may well say that being happy is easy now that ESPN exists. Jon would agree. But happiness is a species of talent, for which some people have superior aptitudes.

Jon was born the year before abortion became legal and just as prenatal genetic tests were becoming routine. Almost all mothers abort babies who have Down Syndrome. Because of advancing science and declining morals, there are fewer people like Jon than there should be. And just in Jon’s generation much has been learned about unlocking the hitherto unimagined potential of the retarded. This begins with early intervention in the form of infant stimulation. Jon began going off to school when he was three months old.

Because Down Syndrome is determined at conception and leaves its imprint in every cell of the person’s body, it raises what philosophers call ontological questions. It seems mistaken to say that Jon is less than he would be without Down Syndrome. When a child suffers a mentally limiting injury after birth we wonder sadly about what might have been. But a Down person’s life never had any other trajectory. Jon was Jon from conception on. He has seen a brother two years younger surpass him in size, get a driver’s license and leave for college, and although Jon would be forgiven for shaking his fist at the universe, he has been equable. I believe his serenity is grounded in his sense that he is a complete Jon and that is that.

Because of Jon’s problems of articulation, I marvel at his casual everyday courage in coping with a world that often is uncomprehending. He is intensely interested in major league baseball umpires, and is a friend of a few of them. I think he is fascinated by their ability to make themselves understood, by vigorous gestures, all the way to the back row of the bleachers. From his season-ticket seat behind the Orioles’ dugout, Jon relishes rhubarbs, but I have never seen him really angry. The closest he comes is exasperation leavened by resignation. It is an interesting commentary on the human condition that one aspect of Jon’s abnormality — a facet of his disability — is the fact that he is gentleness straight through. But must we ascribe a sweet soul to a defective chromosome?

Like many handicapped people, Jon frequently depends on the kindness of strangers. He almost invariably receives it, partly because Americans are, by and large, nice, and because Jon is, too. He was born on his father’s birthday, a gift that keeps on giving.

© George F. Will