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Why Born This Way is the Most Important Reality Show on TV

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

Sean is like most young twenty-something’s in southern California.  He likes to hang out with friends, pursue his passion for sports, and convince young women that he is Mr. Right.  But there is one thing that is a little bit different about Sean.  He is a young man with Down syndrome.

Seeking to change the way people think about those with developmental and intellectual disabilities, Sean and several of his friends with Down syndrome are the focus of the critically acclaimed television series, Born This Way from the A&E Network.  Already nominated for an Emmy, the show begins Season Two with the goal of showing how these individuals are navigating through a world that sometimes diminishes their hopes and dreams.

I recently sat down with Sean’s mother, Sandra McElwee, to talk about why this program can serve as a gateway to greater acceptance for individuals with Down syndrome, her greatest challenge as the parent of a child with a disability, and why she wanted her son to be on Born This Way in the first place.

This is not your ordinary, run of the mill, television program.  From your perspective, what was the inspiration for producing Born This Way in the first place?

The production company that produces Born This Way, their mission is to put people on television that would not normally be on television.  The executive producer, John Murray, had this idea four years ago to – I guess he kept seeing different news reports and thought that they needed to do a show and put people with Down syndrome on it.  He pitched it to pretty much every network and nobody jumped on it.  Well, four years later, I guess that after thinking about it, A&E decided to do it.  That’s how it started.  When my son auditioned for the show I didn’t even know what he was auditioning for.  There was no title.

For someone who has never seen it, how would you describe Born This Way?

It is a program that basically follows the lives of young adults with Down syndrome, detailing their hopes and dreams.  Viewers will find that these young adults want everything in life that everyone else wants.  They want love, employment, fun and activities to do.  The program really shows everyone that people with Down syndrome are more like everyone else than they are different.

As a mother of one of the young adults on the show you are certainly well acquainted with Down syndrome and individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities.  Do you see Born This Way as a doorway to greater acceptance for individuals with these differences?

Absolutely.  From the very beginning I have said that this show is a game changer for people with Down syndrome.  The biggest obstacle they have is fear.  In other words, people around them who are afraid of them.  Most people don’t know anyone with Down syndrome.  If you’re lucky enough to know someone in your family with it you are not afraid.  But if you don’t know anybody, didn’t grow up or go to school with them you are often afraid.  Now, from the comfort of your couch you can become friends with ten adults who have Down syndrome.  Let me tell you, all of the fear will be removed.  My son (Sean) is now approached by people who would never talk to him in the past.  They tell him that they love him and love the show.  In the past they would never do that because they see him as this different guy walking around and they wouldn’t feel comfortable.  Now they feel comfortable and it’s pretty amazing.

As a mother, why did you even want your son Sean to be part of this show?  Were you concerned with the social stigmas that might emerge?

(Laughs) The funny thing is I could have cared less if he was part of any show.  He is the one who always wanted to be on television or in a movie.  He has auditioned for so many roles and never got any.  For this show, they required that a parent come to the audition too.  So, I went with Sean and when we got there I still wasn’t quite sure what the show was going to be all about.  I didn’t really know what the vision was or anything.  I was sure he wouldn’t get it.  He has never gotten any other part so why would he get this one?  So, when he got selected for the show the executive producers actually came out to our house and explained the vision for the show.  And we had to have faith that they weren’t lying to us.  They could have totally turned the show into things that they really weren’t.  But the whole time I had the voice of God in the back of my head saying, “Do it.”  This is something that has never been done before and there is no more powerful medium than television.

For you, what is your greatest challenge as a parent of a child with intellectual or developmental disabilities?

Other people’s attitudes.  Sean was in school and he was the first student with any disability in the regular education classes at his elementary school.  By the time he was in fourth grade the whole school had transformed into an inclusive school.  But then he went to junior high and the administrator, the principal, and the educators didn’t want him in their classes. He had a different person modifying his curriculum.  All they had to do was hand him a different worksheet.  But they didn’t.  They just didn’t want him in their classes.  We skipped eighth grade because it was so bad.  So, he went on to high school and we found some educators who were welcoming but many who weren’t.  Sean’s civil rights were violated five times based on his disability.  It was for things like running on the track team.  He never would have competed but he would have been a member of the team.  I could go on and on.  That has been the biggest challenge – having other people allow him the opportunity to try and show them what he can do. 

From your perspective, what is your ultimate hope for Born This Way?  What would you like to see happen?

That fear would be removed from people’s attitudes about people with disabilities.  That people would give those with Down syndrome and other disabilities opportunities.  Once they have the opportunities for jobs, extra-curricular activities in school, to make friends, it will change the whole world for people with Down syndrome significantly.

Born This Way airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET on the A&E Network.

Watch a Preview of Born This Way:

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