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You Should See Her Teach

Michael Flannery
All About Kids Magazine, May 2001
  Reprinted with the permission of the author and of Shelly Bucksot, Editor, All About Kids Magazine

I recognized Grace's disability the second she was born. Her tongue was sticking out a little; she had the cute tiny nose and beautiful almond shaped eyes. My daughter was born with Down syndrome and I fell in love with her at first sight. But I also broke down and cried.

For the nine months before Grace was born, I imagined what my daughter's life would be like. I imagined being in the audience at grade school plays with my camcorder in hand. I imagined watching her lead cheers at high school football games. I also imagined sitting on the front porch cleaning a gun every time a boy came over to pick her up for a date. And I loved imagining my wife and me at her college graduation and me dancing with her at her wedding. But when Grace was born with Down syndrome, that little girl I had imagined for nine months died. You see I used to think people with Down syndrome were retarded and grew up in "homes."

They went to special schools where they really didn't have to learn anything because, after all, they weren't expected to learn. If they were real lucky, they may live a so-called productive life, but they wouldn't do anything great because they're special. And they for sure didn't get the lead in the plays, become cheerleaders, go to college or get married.

But I couldn't have been more wrong or more prejudiced. I was making all those assumptions on the way my daughter looked. Kids with Down syndrome will do everything every other child does. It just might take them longer to learn it. Most kids sit up at the age of 6 months. Grace sat up for the first time at 11 months. Most kids walk when they're about 1 year old. Grace didn't walk until she was 2. So it's true that Grace doesn't learn as fast as others, but man you should see her teach.

We knew she wouldn't learn to speak as soon as other kids, so right away we started teaching her deaf sign language. The first signs we taught her were "eat," "drink," "more" and "play." We thought these were basic but important. She learned them quickly, then thought up two signs of her own. She thought they were just as important—"Elmo" and "video." The day she taught us the two signs she made up all by herself was the day she taught me to never underestimate someone with a disability.

I have a friend who is planning a new family. After she met Grace, she told me my daughter was the sweetest child she ever met. Then she told me Grace had changed her mind about something. My friend said she would no longer consider an abortion if she found out her baby had Down syndrome. Grace taught her a child with Down syndrome is still a child. Don't ever tell me my daughter won't do great things—she already has.

Grace isn't a "Down's Child," she's a child. She's just a kid who likes Barney and her cat Pogo. She likes going down slides and "Goodnight Moon." She loves her little brother Noah, pronounced "Woah." She likes holding my hand and I love holding hers. She says "up" when she needs a hug and "bye-bye" when we've been at the doctor's too long. She likes playing on swings and splashing in the tub. She won't eat vegetables no matter how her parents try to hide them. And, as is her right as a 2-year-old, she can be a pain in the neck. Sure she has challenges, but who doesn't?

Forty years ago doctors told parents of children with Down syndrome that their kids would never learn anything-that they should send their babies to an institution and forget them. Because of the parents who looked their doctors in the eye and told them to get lost, the kids with Down syndrome today graduate from high school and get jobs. Grace will start regular preschool in the fall. She already knows her letters. In fact, she can read and count to five. I've got a college fund with her name on it if anyone would like to make a donation, and I'm taking any bets that along the way she'll be in plays, become a cheerleader, and if I ever stop cleaning that gun, one day I'll put on a tux and dance with her at her wedding. You see, that little girl I imagined for nine months didn't die. Her name is Grace, she's almost 3 going on 12 and she taught me that the way someone looks doesn't mean a thing about whom they are or what they can do. It's just the way they look. Please don't make the same mistake I did.

Revised: May 13, 2002.