When I was six, my friend Tom died. My Mum took me aside when I got home from school and explained that he had gone into the hospital for routine surgery but something had gone wrong. She said it was just as well that he had died. You see, Tom had Down syndrome.
I don't mean to slander my mother. Like my father, she thought this was humane and rational -- that we should not cling to life if that life is one of terrible suffering. She was repeating the conventional wisdom of the day, and that wisdom said that if you had Down syndrome, your life was not worth living. Others who ought to have known better were often worse. In the eyes of many doctors, children with Down syndrome were burdens that would bring only disappointment to their families and they pressed parents to put their children in institutions and tell everyone that the baby had died. These children, it was believed, would never be any use to anyone, and their birth was treated as a tragedy.
My daughter Hazel was born with Down syndrome five years ago. I found myself thinking of Tom a lot in the months that followed her birth. My wife and I, and especially Hazel, are lucky that things have changed since Tom died. Hazel has had an array of specialists who have helped her learn to walk and talk and she goes to a regular elementary school with other 'normal' kids. She still has challenges. We haven't got her potty-trained yet. On the other hand, she knows her alphabet and she can count better than some of her classmates. She likes learning and she is enthusiastic about going to school. Much more than I ever was. I hated school.