Gerber has been running an annual competition since 2010 to select a baby to represent their brand. Last week Gerber announced that they had chosen a little boy named Lucas, who has Down Syndrome, as their Gerber Baby for 2018. Immediate and deserved praise was heard from all corners; I was bombarded with the news by friends who know my son has Down Syndrome as well.

About 24 hours later, however, the Down Syndrome community opened up about the more complex feelings people were having when they heard the news. Gerber has a life insurance company for children and for decades they have denied coverage to children with Down Syndrome on the basis of their chromosomal makeup rather than their personal medical history.

Some people with Down Syndrome are severely impacted physically; some are Olympic contenders or professional dancers.

While Down Syndrome can predispose people towards towards certain medical conditions such as Celiac disease, diabetes, or congenital heart defects, there is a lot of variety within the community, just like the general population. Some people with Down Syndrome are severely impacted physically; some are Olympic contenders or professional dancers. Parents shared the pain they experienced upon their children being rejected over their trisomy for a program that was a rite of passage for many other children.

What people should be asking themselves is: How much of what you think of as “the impact of Down Syndrome” was really the expected result of of forcing people with Down Syndrome to be raised in institutions instead of by their loved ones? The average life expectancy for people with Down Syndrome in 1983 was 25 years old. With changing attitudes and legislation such as IDEA and the ADA resulting in better care, the current life expectancy is 60, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t continue going up. 30 years ago it was considered fact that people with Down Syndrome didn’t have the mental capacity to read or write. Today there are college programs geared towards students with Down Syndrome. Assuming limitation, whether physical or mental, is an out-dated and prejudicial attitude.

Assuming limitation, whether physical or mental, is an out-dated and prejudicial attitude.

Many companies have started casting models with visible disabilities, and they are to be applauded for it. Changing the Face of Beauty, a creative movement non-profit, holds casting calls for models with disabilities and has 100 partner companies dedicated to more inclusive marketing. Target, for example, began by casting differently abled models and has since announced clothing lines for children and adults with disabilities and special needs. Dedication to inclusion is noted and appreciated.

Gerber has the right to deny policies to all children with Down Syndrome, even while issuing policies to children with known medical issues such as severe asthma or anaphylactic level allergies. Similarly, we have the right to call them out for the hypocrisy of casting a model to whom they traditionally deny coverage. Gerber has heard and responded to the issue. A tepid response to complaints said that they have updated guidelines and now issue policies to “a number of children with Down Syndrome.” This is a step in the direction of facing prejudice, and I hope that they continue to move towards a greater understanding of people with special needs as individuals.

Daniela Weiss-Bronstein serves as the rebbetzin of The Hampton Synagogue. She is also a volunteer in the ambassador program for the National Down Syndrome Society.

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