Special Needs Now

Kids and Adults with Down Syndrome Belong in the Picture

Parents like us can take credit for the rise in visibility of kids and adults with Down syndrome, both in the public view and in the media.

kayla kosmalski model with down syndrome Instagram user Princess Kayla
Down syndrome is gaining a new type of visibility as more and more individuals, businesses, and campaigns recognize that this group deserves to be in the picture, both literally and metaphorically.

Many of us have schoolmates, coworkers, or neighbors with Down syndrome who we see on a regular basis, and we sometimes see them in the news, when an individual with Down syndrome scores a touchdown or is crowned the homecoming queen. But we don't often see this group represented in catalogues of major retailers or on the fashion runway, alongisde other typically developing adults and children—all that's began to change recently, though.

In 2012 the world met Ryan Langston (pictured below, at left), a 6-year-old boy with Down syndrome who modeled for Target. Although Langston's appearance prompted a host of stories on various media outlets, Target didn't single him out as a model with Down syndrome. He was just a good-looking, fun kid.

target ad with ryan langston Target

More recently, 18-year-old Madeline Stuart made headlines around the globe when she landed two modeling contracts; Jamie Brewer—from the cast of American Horror Story—was the first model with Down syndrome to grace the runway of Fashion Week (below); and Kayla Kosmalski, 9, landed a modeling gig with Gap. The list goes on, and all of these headlines have made me wonder: What factors have contributed to this recent uptick in models with Down syndrome?

jamie brewer on ny fashion week runway Brian Ach/Stringer

It has only been a few decades since parents began routinely bringing their children home from the hospital after a diagnosis of Down syndrome rather than sending them to an institution. Those decades have not only meant more inclusion in family life, school communities, and the larger society, but they have also meant greater visibility—and better health—for people with Down syndrome.

In the past decade, with the rise of the Internet, more and more parents have been blogging about their families and posting photos of their children. I've written before about why I post photos of our daughter online, and plenty of other parents blog about their children with Down syndrome and include photographs. For more and more people, the images associated with Down syndrome are not outdated, clinical black-and-white pictures, but the images of children and adults participating in meaningful activities with family and friends.

I'm inclined to think that this grassroots effort to put a positive and realistic "face" to Down syndrome has led to the beginnings of wider cultural assumptions about the place people with Down syndrome have within our society. Now, various organizations are mirroring the work these parents have been doing over the years so that children and adults with Down syndrome become more visible in every aspect of our society.

For example, the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation has funded a series of resources for new and expectant parents for children with Down syndrome with images of children at home and at play. The Honest Body Project has documented through photographs the beauty of mothers with their children with Down syndrome and other special needs. Changing the Face of Beauty, a nonprofit corporation founded in 2012, has worked to promote greater visibility for people with disabilities throughout the media and advertising worlds.

Between parents, bloggers, and the deliberate efforts of institutions, positive images of people with Down syndrome have made it into our collective consciousness, onto television, and now, onto the runways of Fashion Week. People like Ryan Langston, Jamie Brewer, Madeline Stuart, and Kayla Kosmalski are signs of a culture moving beyond awareness of Down syndrome and disability to one that is including and even welcoming a wider spectrum of people. Parents and corporations alike are beginning to see that kids and adults with Down syndrome belong in the picture.

Amy Julia is the mom of three kids who love broccoli and hot dogs, and who ask for lollipops every day! Her guilty pleasures are Chardonnay and Diet Coke. She is also the author of Small Talk: Learning from my Children about What Matters Most and A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny. Visit her at amyjuliabecker.com.

Life With Down Syndrome