What’s So “Different” about Down Syndrome?

This Tuesday (March 21) is World Down Syndrome Day. You likely know that Down syndrome, the result of an “extra” chromosome in one’s genes, is associated with low IQ scores. Unfortunately, that’s all that many people know—and, for far too long, all the typical person could see. In the not-so-good “old days,” people with Down syndrome were rarely allowed to develop their full potential: it was assumed they didn’t have any.

Even as the world learns better, Down syndrome comes with an annoyance common to many disabilities: it’s usually the first, and sometimes the only, thing people notice about you. Disability is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s only one aspect of the whole person. And it gets tiresome when everybody focuses on the same thing.

Ask Me about Something Else!

Oliver Hellowell of the UK agrees. He’s a professional landscape and wildlife photographer, in his mid-twenties. He sells greeting cards and other photo-based products online, and has published two books.

He’s also a 2015 “Disability Role Model of the Year” winner from the UK’s National Diversity Awards. Oliver has Down syndrome—and, in the everyday, considers that no more than an afterthought. And would prefer that everyone thought the same way.

“Oliver has never expressed a wish that he didn’t have DS,” says his mother, Wendy. “He just doesn’t like answering the questions, or understand why people focus on it so much. He says. ‘I’m a photographer—why don’t they ask me about my photographs??!!’ The way he sees it, he is just Oliver, and he just happens to have DS, but it doesn’t define him.”

Just Oliver

Oliver’s own answer to “would you like to say anything about DS?” is simply, “It’s fine!” Questions about his true passions get a much more detailed answer:

I like going on holiday to cottages in the countryside. I like to go to Wales and Scotland and one day I would like to go to Costa Rica, and Iceland, and on safari in Africa. I would like to go to Florida and get lots of pictures of the birds and wildlife there, and I would like to go to the Great Lakes and Ontario and Niagara Falls. I have LOTS of places I would like to go!

I like being outside, and I like it when me and my father go looking in the woods for big sticks and mossy branches to set up at home for the birds to land on. I love all birds, especially birds of prey. I really love going rock-pooling with my father—he can find anything in the rock pools!

I love nature TV and films: David Attenborough is my favourite. I also love talk shows and football [professional soccer to you Americans]—I like to keep up with all the teams in the league.

I love my two cats very much. I love my family. My big sister Anna is the “selfie” queen. When we go out she says, “You take the pictures Ollie, I’ll do the selfies!” My father taught me to be a photographer and now I’m better than him!! My mum looks after me and we laugh! I like it when my nieces come to stay. And I get very excited when I know I’m going to see my brothers Simon and Liam.

I love it when people order my pictures and cards and books and stuff from my website. I like to read their addresses and see where they live.

I am proud of my photography and my career. I’ve got lots of awards on my chest of drawers. I am very proud of my exhibitions—I have a big one every year and everyone comes.

Surrounded by Encouragement

“Oliver enjoys a very full and interesting life,” adds his mother. “Our family lives in the Blackdown Hills, on the Somerset/Devon border, in a small village. We have a big garden with three ‘bird-hides’—you call them ‘blinds’ in the U.S.—so he can take photographs of local birds.

“Oliver has always been surrounded by positivity, encouragement, and love, and we have ensured that he is protected from negativity. We make a point of focusing on what he can do, never what he can’t do (though there does come a point where every young man needs to accept that maybe he can’t marry Taylor Swift)!

“When Oliver won ‘UK Disability Role Model of The Year’ at the National Diversity Awards, he said in his acceptance speech: ‘They said I’ve got Down Syndrome, and that’s difficult. But I found it easy.’ Which I think sums up his thoughts on the subject quite well!”

Oliver Hellowell Online

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