“We like to think we live in the most tolerant society of all time,” Mike Michalak points out dryly. “But […] our answer in the 1950’s with my Uncle Ray [was to tell] my Grandma on the day he was born, You’re son’s never going to know who you are. Put him in an institution. He’ll never know how to read or write, or know you’re his mom.” As the reader may have guessed, Uncle Ray was born with Down syndrome.
Yet by the time he passed away in the year 2000, Ray had proven himself a blessing rather than a burden. At Ray’s funeral, Michalak reminisces, “there was standing room only in the church and we had a ton of people everywhere. This life that was supposed to be thrown away and never matter … they were bringing in folding chairs into the back of the church to handle the crowds!”
Of course before coming down too hard on the bygone culture of the Fifties, it should be noted that at least back then it was not normal for children with Down’s syndrome to be literally thrown away. In today’s post-Roe v. Wade society, by contrast, expectant mothers of children with Down syndrome are offered the option of disposing of their children before birth; lofty talk about diversity masks the assumption that human worth can be tidily measured via standardized testing.
In 2008 Mike and his wife Penny founded Angels In Disguise to ameliorate this situation. “Individuals with Down syndrome have a unique and unbelievable ability to enrich our lives, unlock our defenses and love deeply,” the organization’s mission statement explains. “They are pure and precious gifts.” The annual Angels In Disguise concert has become an annual event, bringing in to Louisville performers ranging from Sujeet Dasai to Rion Paige. In addition to medical research and awareness campaigns, funds raised go to adoption grants that help prospective parents welcome orphans with Down syndrome.
“I think there’s no bigger way than we can change perceptions than to have a community see a family bring home a child that the world says is broken,” explains Michalak. “‘What does that family know that I don’t know?’ It gets people thinking about why we’re here. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ‘What is it that we are called to do?’”
The Buckley family of Vine Grove, Kentucky is an especially noteworthy beneficiary of an Angels In Disguise grant. Out of James and Carrie Buckley’s 11 children, two are adoptees with Down syndrome, and are living proof that many of the problems associated with Down syndrome can be ameliorated with resources, competent care, and grace. One child arrived at the Buckley home unable to even sit up, recounts Mr. Buckley, yet within two months was able to walk. “That’s God working, right there.”
In 2016, Angels In Disguise added to its list of programs the Georgie Kurtz scholarship – named in honor of Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz’s brother, who was born with Down syndrome and passed away in 2002.
Having taught bioethics for a number of semesters, I find that mention of Down syndrome inevitably calls to my mind the work of physician and bioethicist Leon Kass, as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “Who is a greater drain on society’s precious resources,” Kass pointedly asks utilitarians in Toward A More Natural Science (Free Press, 1988), “the average inmate of a home for the retarded or the average graduate of Berkeley?” The more we think about the numbers, the more this begins to look like a very awkward question for America’s educational establishment. “Who knows what is genetically best for mankind, even with respect to Down’s syndrome?” Who indeed, aside from God?
As for Huxley’s famous 1932 dystopia novel, science fiction aficionados may well recall that in one of its brief, darkly comic episodes eugenicists experiment with populating an island solely with high-IQ individuals; saturated with rivalry and ego, the island is promptly plunged into ferocious strife as its too-cerebral, hypercompetitive inhabitants choose to massacre one another. Speculation, to be sure, but speculation worth chewing on in a society that has fervently and uncritically embraced standardized “perfection.” If there is one thing which should have been made clear by the myriad calamities of the 20th and early 21st centuries, it is that man’s fragile world is held upright neither by academic aptitude nor by credentials, but by love.
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