This is a slide from one of my presentations to health professionals explaining the reality of having a child with a disability. This is a picture of a Gerber Baby, a so-called blue ribbon, or perfect baby.
This week, the Internet is abuzz that the new Gerber Baby has Down syndrome.
I’m obviously going to have to rethink my presentation slide. My point was that we all expect a perfect baby when our children are born. The honest fact is that no child is perfect, but with most children, this is something we gradually figure out as the years pass – particularly when adolescence hits and we get the inevitable call from the principal’s office. Our job as parents is to help our children embrace their imperfections, for that’s what makes them – and all of us – human.
If you have a child with Down syndrome, the fact your child isn’t perfect is immediately pointed out by many people upon diagnosis. I am happy for Lucas’ family and I know that having a baby with Down syndrome represent the Gerber Baby is a big deal for new families. I’ve seen lots of sharing of Lucas’ image on social media and indeed, this news should be celebrated. It is great that children with differences are starting to get a shot at modelling. I pause here to say how I wish we were more evolved as a society and this wasn’t big news at all; that the advertising world chose images that represented the diversity of our world – including diversity of ability. But that’s me with my rose-coloured glasses on.
When my son Aaron was three, he was chosen to be on a campaign to advertise a Buddy Walk, an annual fundraiser for organizations who support people with Down syndrome. We were thrilled to see his image on the sides of buses and up on billboards.
I understand how validating this Gerber Baby news is for us families who are anxious about the reception our children will be received in the world. Lucas will be a role model for families with young children, no doubt. We search for role models for now-14 year old Aaron, too – in television shows with stars with Down syndrome like Born this Way or through plays like King Arthur’s Night, co-written and starring Niall McNeil, who has an extra chromosome like my boy. Aaron needs to see other people with Down syndrome in the public eye to show him what’s possible. It affirms his very existence.
Having Lucas as the Gerber Baby will bring awareness to babies with Down syndrome. But will this mean the world will start to change to embrace disabilities?
“I’m skeptical this is a significant moment,” said David Perry on CBC’s The Current this morning. I feel jaded saying this, but I agree with David. We have to go further. Awareness is not even a start to anywhere significant. Awareness is just awareness. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for being so progressive that Lucas’ modelling gig represents great change in a world that continuously and repeatedly discriminates against people with all sorts of disabilities. That would naive and foolish.
I’ve written before about The Cute Thing. Lucas is super cute, as was Aaron during his brief modelling career. Aaron grew up and Lucas will grow up, too. We all grow up. Teenagers and adults are not cute, whether they have Down syndrome or not. Are those who are not cute – for whatever reason – simply discarded, if cute is all important? Is it only those people with disabilities who make us feel better about ourselves (a disturbing phenomenon called Inspiration Porn, as explained by the late great Stella Young) the only people of value?
I don’t know the Gerber Product Company’s intentions by choosing a baby with Down syndrome to be their Gerber Baby. I’d hanker a guess that it is for the same reason they choose any baby: an attractive baby helps them sell products. The baby food business is big business. I note that Gerber was sold to Nestle in 2007. I’ve boycotted Nestle products since the mid-1990’s, ever since I found out about their unethical marketing of infant formula – allegations of which continue today.
I do so wish this news was associated with a more ethical company.
What I’m asking for is for us to consider: Is that all there is? When a large corporation chooses a baby with Down syndrome to represent their product, does this mean that my son’s own life is going to improve? Will he now have friends? Will I have funding for therapies, respite or childcare for him now? Will he be able to find a job? Love? Will he be safe as he makes his way in this world? These are deeper questions that bubble up for me.
As I said about cancer, awareness is simply not enough. It is a feel-good road to nowhere, unless it is followed up by real action: a change in practice about how prenatal screening and testing is offered to women, a commitment to inclusive education + employment opportunities, equitable health care and governments who demonstrate they value all sorts of diversity. For sure, let’s pause to celebrate the new Gerber Baby. Then let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.