There’s something I want each and every one of you to ponder and get back to me with your ideas and thoughts. This past weekend my family and I participated in the Long Island Buddy Walk at Heckscher Park in Suffolk County, NY. It was a beautiful day and there was a decent turn-out for the walk sponsored by Alexander’s Angels…. But something was niggling at the back of my brain.
I couldn’t help but wonder how an event like this raises awareness of Down syndrome in our society. Yes, the money raised goes to organizations like the National Down Syndrome Society and the Down Syndrome Advocacy Foundation among others that do a phenomenal job of getting the word out and supporting inclusion efforts that expose the masses without DS to individuals with DS. BUT, I have found personally that the most effective tool for raising awareness and acceptance in society at large — thereby increasing opportunity for all — is through exposure to people who have Down syndrome in the communities where they live, go to school and work.
If you want to change some one’s antiquated thinking about what’s possible for a person with Down syndrome to achieve, all you really have to do is to introduce them to and have them spend time with a person with Down syndrome… or two… or 200… and more. Over and over again.
Buddy Walks are held across the country and are attended, mostly, by the family and friends of people with Down syndrome…. All of whom are already aware of Down syndrome, have experienced the amazing things that people with Down syndrome are capable of achieving and know, personally, what people with Down syndrome give back to the world through their very presence. In this sense, it’s a sort of segregated event. At the very least, it’s fair to say these events are NOT attended by OTHER people who have not yet been touched by Down syndrome, and who really need to know what we families and friends already KNOW!
As a kid, every year for as long as I can remember, I participated in the 20-mile March of Dimes Walk-A-Thon. Yet, I have no birth defects — nor do the friends and family who walked with me. Yet, there we all were, walking, raising awareness along with the thousands of others who walked… and we were learning, ourselves, about birth defects and what the March of Dimes was doing to help. How can we do that in the Down syndrome community? How can we make the Buddy Walk an integrated event where people with DS walk side-by-side with thousands of people who do not have DS, through the very communities we share. In the very communities we are trying to raise awareness and foster greater acceptance! How do we grow these local Buddy Walks into events that people not-yet-touched by a person with Down syndrome are compelled to participate in? If we can just get them to show up, we can teach them so much… through exposure to people with Down syndrome.
Exposure breeds acceptance and acceptance breeds inclusion.
We need greater visibility with the people who live and work in our communities who have not yet been touched by a person with Down syndrome.
Let me start you off with a few ideas… Maybe the sponsoring organization can run a 5K side-by-side with the Buddy Walk to attract the thousands of runners that are always looking for the next charity race to run but who might not otherwise come out for a Down Syndrome Buddy Walk. Then Buddy each runner with a walker with Down Syndrome so their number is accompanied by a picture and profile of someone with Down syndrome. Let’s make it personal! Or, how about holding the walk in a shopping mall (inside or in the parking lot) where mall “walk-ins” gain exposure to this wondrous population and can participate in the festivities and learn. Exposure of people with Down syndrome to store personnel increases employment opportunities in our communities while these businesses can help sponsor the event by offering discounts and/or a percentage of sales to support the cause. The NYC Buddy Walk included live music — Actor Chris Burke (DS) and his band — and carnival-like games and activities where members of the community who were just passing through Central Park were hooked by the festivities and inadvertently mixed with the Down syndrome community… and learned! That’s increasing awareness and still raises money and supports the advocacy organizations of choice.
Come on folks…. Put on your thinking caps and let’s hear it! I want all your crazy ideas so I can pass them on to the powers that be here on Long Island. I’ll compile them and publish them and we can each start a grass roots effort to affect greater awareness of and greater exposure to people with Down syndrome in our home communities. Much greater! And, if the folks in charge are not willing to listen and grow, then we’ll have to do it ourselves. Each of us parents and friends of people with Down syndrome need to become the catalyst that brings greater awareness and acceptance of all people with Down syndrome in our communities. And in every community across the United States and throughout the world. It starts with one parent, with one new idea implemented at the local level and it grows until the CHANGE we’re looking for is realized worldwide — to the benefit of our children with Down syndrome as well as to the people they touch.