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World Down Syndrome Day: The pressing need to better understand mental disabilities
The recent death of Robert Ethan Saylor has sparked calls for serious change
 
Romanian children hold hands after their performance marking World Down Syndrome Day in Bucharest, March 21.
Romanian children hold hands after their performance marking World Down Syndrome Day in Bucharest, March 21. AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

The United Nations has declared March 21 World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD), with the goal of "raising public awareness" of the intellectual disability. The U.N. hopes to spark discourse about Down Syndrome, starting with the Lots of Socks campaign to wear mismatched and brightly colored socks "to get people talking about WDSD."

However, many advocates believe that such campaigns are not enough, especially in light of the recent death of Robert Ethan Saylor. Saylor, a 26-year-old Maryland man with Down Syndrome, died of asphyxiation at the hands of local police. After seeing Zero Dark Thirty and being left alone briefly by his caretaker, Saylor returned to the theater and refused to buy another ticket. Mall security dragged and restrained him, and he died in the process. While the death is still being investigated, many are wondering if better-established treatment and respect for individuals with Down Syndrome would have prevented his death. 

It would have made all the difference if law enforcement officials were properly trained to work with people with mental disabilities, says James Mulvaney at the Washington Post. "Where is the public outrage" that someone, let alone someone with Down Syndrome, was "killed while taken into police custody for the crimes of petty larceny and, perhaps, disorderly conduct?" A number of factors led to Saylor’s death, but "a failure to recognize that a disability is not a crime" played an essential role.

Saylor's death is indeed part of  "the recurring tragedy of police agencies unable to deal with people who are not criminal and dangerous, but vulnerable" said the New York Times. But the responsibility doesn’t fall solely on the police. Their gross mishandling is a "symptom" of a "society unwilling to accept the full humanity" of individuals with mental disabilities. It illustrates exactly why the public awareness goals of WDSD are "well meaning, but not enough anymore."

"It’s easy to say we all ought to know better. We all ought to be more accepting, more understanding," said the Boston Herald, but that’s different from truly viewing and treating individuals with disabilities as equals. "Yes, we’ve come along way toward acceptance over the years, but not nearly as far as we can go side by side."

For parents of children with mental disabilities who are deeply disturbed by Saylor’s death, the emphasis is on taking action. As Jen Logan, a medical professional and a mother of a child with Down Syndrome, wrote: "We need outrage" more than merely awareness on WDSD. "Speak out against the violence perpetrated against those with IDs [intellectual disabilities]/DDs [developmental disabilities]. Denounce stereotypes, the promotion of hatred. Remember Robert Ethan Saylor and all victims of violence, of discrimination, and neglect."

 
Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

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