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The gifts of poetry and Down syndrome

  • 26 March 2019


After a few dramatic weeks in Australian and world news, 21 March came as a relief. It hosted special days that attended to less dramatic but no less deeply human concerns. They commemorated Down syndrome and poetry.

In conversation about Down syndrome two opposed judgments are usually heard. One sees it as pitiable and a burden on parents and society that ideally would have been eliminated by discovering the condition early and terminating the pregnancy. This view is not new. It was held in many ancient cultures.

The other view sees people with Down syndrome as a gift to be treasured. Through them we learn and celebrate what is deepest in our humanity. They bear the image of the King in their dignity as unique and precious human beings.

The latter view was on show when Michelle Payne won the 2015 Melbourne Cup on the long-shot Prince of Penzance. Even the many thousands of people who had lost their money on the race were delighted at the unbridled joy they saw in Stevie, Michelle's brother and strapper, who has Down syndrome. They responded to the love that bound him to his sister and family, and to his patent joy in the skill he brought to his work.

He, like so many people born with Down syndrome, has clearly been as great a gift to his family as they are to him. They, like many other families, may see his condition as a gift. A very testing gift, certainly, one which will also sometimes be experienced by the person and their families as a burden, but will also be prized as a gift that deepens all those touched by it.

It makes available large and simple words that ring true only when tested by hard experience. Words like goodness and generosity that call into question the conventional wisdom that people's value can be measured by their contribution to the economy, by their intelligence, their articulacy or their wealth and status.

In the company of people with Down syndrome we may be teased into softening the hard edges in our relationships which make plausible such calculating assumptions. We see that love makes notable people who may seem at first sight marginal, recognises a gift that may lie hidden, and enables us to celebrate wholeheartedly the simplest and apparently most inconsequential aspects of our relationships.  That discovery of a simple humanity in turn can bring a greater benefit to