Juxtaposed with What? Reflections on a Questionable Campaign
Tuesday, May 23rd, 2023
Written By: Gareth Lloyd
An advertisement shared by the Canadian Down Syndrome Society during their Endangered Species campaign.
Not so very long ago, in 2018, the Canadian Down Syndrome Society launched a campaign that shocked many people, including those of us who are familiar with Social Role Valorization (SRV) theory.
What precipitated this campaign was the Society’s awareness that medical advances have made it possible for a baby with Down Syndrome to be identified as such very early on in pregnancy, and that it is remarkably common for this testing to result in the pregnancy being terminated.
Indeed, an Atlantic article from 2020 detailing the state of affairs in Denmark reported that when a mother is informed that her unborn child has Down Syndrome, "more than 95 percent choose to abort."
In response to what was, understandably, very distressing to the Society, the organization applied to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, requesting that people with Down syndrome be added to their "Red List of Threatened Species." The Society developed a video in which people with Down Syndrome appeared, dressed in the costumes of endangered animals, and explained to viewers why people like themselves were also an endangered species.
A central tenet of SRV is that there is a strong link between how people are perceived and how they are treated within society. We know that it is essential to do everything possible to enable those who are devalued, or at risk of devaluation, to be perceived as positively as possible. We need to be vigilant in avoiding anything that reinforces the negative stereotypes that often surround those who are devalued.
One of the most enduring stereotypes of people with developmental disabilities is that they are childlike and need to be treated as children. By presenting adults with Down Syndrome dressed in animal costumes, the campaign reinforced the child stereotype that is so devaluing of people with disabilities. While dressing in animal costumes is not unusual for young children, it is hard to think of a situation where one would see a group of adults all dressed like this.
The prevalence of terminating pregnancies where a child would be born with Down Syndrome reflects the fact that many in society perceive a person with this syndrome as non-human or less than human - not worthy of being born. Suggesting, as this campaign did, that people with Down Syndrome constitute a separate species implies that they are not part of the human species, further perpetuating this very negative stereotype.
It is important to note that the Canadian Down Syndrome Society’s mission is “focused upon human rights, health, social participation, inclusive education and employment for those with Down Syndrome," a very positive mission that is highly compatible with SRV. They would undoubtedly find SRV very useful.
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