Wednesday, November 6, 2013

BioTalk, Episode 6: Good News About Down Syndrome

Friday, November 1, 2013

Stand up for Shea Riddell

Shea Riddell is a stunning blond with a dimpled smile and a striking aura of innocence. She smiles shyly from the photos in the article about the bullying incident which had made her a bit of a celebrity. She seems overwhelmed by the attention she is receiving, but still grateful for the support. You can't help but like her. At least thousands of people who have come to her aid feel that way. But not everyone agrees that Shea, who suffered a lack of oxygen at birth which means at 18 she has the mental capacity of an 8 year old, is a lovely teenager.

Someone wants her dead.

Someone in her social circles doesn't like her at all, in fact she has called her vile names and threatened her with rape and violence. Such cruelty is unthinkable, but after a bullied teen committed suicide in Massachusetts and more recently in Florida, it is becoming frighteningly commonplace. How did bullying, which was always present in schools, get so out of hand?

After all, bullying has always existed in the schoolyard. I remember suffering as Shea does way back in 1974, when I was transitioning from elementary school to junior high. An upper class man followed me around the neighborhood, threatening me with a beating as I walked to school alone. Just because of who I was. I was, like Shea, a bit shy, but unlike Shea, I was a good student, a nerd. What we have in common is that we stand out in the crowd, we are different. Different in ways that an unhappy girl can't stand. No school authorities offered to intervene for me and I continued to walk to school alone. Eventually I saw that the threats were empty and the girl who terrified me wound up a lonely single parent in high school. In high school, I felt sorry for her. But that was before cell phones and the Internet made harassment anonymous and omniscient.

I think there is another factor at work in Shea's case. She is mentally disabled. 'Retard' is one of the epithets hurled at Shea, and again, I feel her pain. I have a daughter who has Down syndrome and is mentally challenged. When I learned of Christina's diagnosis and shared it with her nine year old sister, she broke into tears. "Mom, they'll make fun of her like they did to those kids with Down syndrome in school" she sobbed. I reminded her that anyone who is different is mocked by those who are unhappy in life, but she has a point. We have less tolerance for those who are disabled than we used to.It has to do with abortion.

For the last forty years the 'cure' for Down syndrome has been pre-natal testing and abortion. It is now expected that moms who learned their child had Down syndrome will abort, so that no one did research to help those with Down syndrome, and often they were denied life saving treatments. Down syndrome researcher Dr William Mobley shared at a fundraiser for the Lejeune USA Foundation that as a resident working in the Emergency Room he diagnosed a teenager with Down syndrome with life threatening appendicitis. Twelve hours later, when the girl was not operated on and in severe pain, he asked his supervisor why, and the response was "She has Down syndrome". The implication was that her life was not worth saving.  Dr Mobley was motivated by this incident to be a pioneer in Down syndrome research so that this prejudice would be overcome, but sadly, not all health care workers have his compassion. Many of my friends were harassed by health care personnel who insisted that they abort their child with Down syndrome before he "ruins your life, and that of your children". Elimination of 'life unworthy of life' has, like recycling and having only two children, become an unspoken civic duty. For the good of the nation as it says in 1984. 

 So Shea was told by her tormentor. ‘"Why are u still here. Clearly no one wants you. U only have special needs friends." Somehow this person caught the toxic attitude that those with special needs are worthless. 
That pernicious attitude demeans all of us. We all need to stand up for Shea and for Christina. Someday our minds will fade and our usefulness will seem to diminish. Someone will think we are using more than our share of resources, and like the European nations who are expanding doctors' authority to cull the herd via euthanasia of the disabled and children.