Silas Donham responds to posts on the New York Times Motherlode blog criticizing those who would reject potential chemical treatments intended to improve intellectual function of infants with Down syndrome. This difficult topic provoked a debate here on Contrarian that was remarkably thoughtful and respectful. But when the Times picked up on our discussion, many commenters were incredulous that any parent would hesitate accept such treatments for their children. A few had nasty things to say. Silas responds:
First, the disclosure: I am Jenn Power’s husband, father to Jacob and Josh, and son to contrarian.ca, the blogger who got all this started. Like Jenn, I have spent my adult life living and working intimately with people who have intellectual disabilities.
Many of the contributors to this discussion seem to be imagining a magic pill without risk or side-effect that would remove the intellectual impairment associated with Down Syndrome. Medical treatments like that do not exist. Of course Jenn and I want our children to have every advantage, and the fullness of potential, which is available to them. Our boys have glasses, they have tubes in their ears, they attend school as well as physio-, occupational, and speech therapy, a clinic that focuses on eating difficulties, an adaptive swim program, a youth group, church, friends’ birthday parties, etc. One of my boys had surgery to repair a hole in his heart. I home-schooled them for a year to get ready for regular school. But we would not allow a medical researcher, however sincere and well-meaning, to take a potential chemical blender to their brains in infancy. Thank you, no. In that sense, our boys are just fine the way they are.
Many of you have posed questions from the imagined viewpoint of a person with a disability: if you had Down Syndrome, wouldn’t you want to be “cured”? Can you imagine a person with no legs NOT wanting a treatment that would give him legs? It is a sad observation that the voices of actual people with disabilities are usually absent from discussions of this type (thanks to Ingrid in San Francisco for bucking that trend). In fact, their answers to these questions are often not what you would expect. I first contemplated that idea when I heard a CBC radio piece produced by Dave Hingsburger, a counsellor and disability rights activist in Toronto. Over the course of a two-hour program, Hingsburger talked to many members of the disability community, including people with Down Syndrome, as well as a man who has no legs. At some point in the course of other discussions he asked each person he talked to whether, if presented with a pill that would get rid of their disability, they would take it. Without exception, they all said no.
At the time, this was an earth-shattering notion for me. But the fact is that I know many people who have intellectual disabilities. No-one I know sees themselves as diseased, suffering, or in need of a cure. So who is really imposing their viewpoint here?
Jenn framed her response to this medical research in terms of the benefit she has received from her relationships with people with disabilities, and the benefit society as a whole stands to gain from them. Unfortunately some of you have construed that to mean that people with disabilities should be kept in a limited, suffering state so the rest of us might benefit. Several of you even made the hurtful comparison between our boys and “therapy animals.”
Perhaps it is a symptom of the way people with disabilities are devalued in our society that we so often feel the need to justify them by naming the benefit other people receive from them. No other group in society needs to do this. However, that is not the basis by which we make decisions about our boys’ lives. Everything we do (including the hypothetical rejection of experimental brain treatment) for them is with their best interests at heart. And to respond to other posters, we have not forgotten what might happen to our boys when we are no longer around. That is why our whole lives are devoted to people with intellectual disabilities, from our parenting to our professional lives with L’Arche to our involvement in the local school to our involvement in discussions such as this one. A society that recognizes the gifts of people with disabilities is one that goes beyond inclusion and tolerance to real relationship.
People are complicated organisms. Tinkering with one aspect affects a host of others. As a society we tend to overvalue independence and intellectual competence. These things do not bear a linear relationship with happiness or quality of life. There are a lot of independent people who lead very lonely lives. In my experience of people with intellectual disabilities, the ones who are more capable and independent are often the ones who have the hardest time finding a place of belonging, and who therefore lead lives of greater suffering. I don’t mean to say that capability is a bad thing; I just mean that it is complicated, and that makes the ramifications of this treatment hard to predict.
We don’t know whether this potential brain treatment will lead to greater quality of life for people with Down Syndrome. We don’t know what its risks and side-effects might be. We do know that people with disabilities are undervalued, insufficiently supported, and too seldom consulted or in control of the decisions that affect their lives. Why don’t we put more work into supporting the weaker members of society, combating bullying and abuse, and discovering and learning from the experience of people who have disabilities, and get less excited about expensive, unproven treatments that may do more harm than good?