Last October, our family realized that we were not welcome in the French Republic.
I had always assumed that if we were made unwelcome in France, it would be because of our insistence on the daily application of deodorant. Or perhaps because I look goofy in a beret, my wife shaves her legs, and neither of us has perfected the art of dispassionate chain-smoking. We’re not very good at casual and disaffected poststructuralism, we’re loud and opinionated, and we buy whatever cheese is on sale. Sometimes I wear socks with sandals. It makes sense that France would be reluctant to invite our family to long weekends in Nice or hip galleries in Montmarte.
But the real reason we feel unwelcome in France is not that we’re uncool. We’re unwelcome because of Down syndrome.
Last year, the Conseil d’Etat upheld a government ban on a television commercial highlighting the lives of people with Down syndrome. The video was judged to be “inappropriate” for French audiences because it conveyed happy people with Down syndrome, who were “likely to disturb the consciences of women who had lawfully made different personal life choices.”
France is the country where Dr. Jerome Lejeune first began researching and treating patients with Down syndrome. It is the country where Jean Vanier began L’Arche homes for disabled adults. It is the country where Charles de Gaulle proudly and lovingly doted on Anne, his daughter with Down syndrome.
But today, French law requires that prenatal tests be offered to all pregnant women. According to some academic studies, more than 90 percent of French children prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. And the French government has decided that the mere sight of children with Down syndrome on television is an unhappy intrusion on the national conscience.
My wife and I have two rambunctious children with Down syndrome. Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité does not seem to extend to our loud, messy children.
This week, we’ve learned that we’re also unwelcome in Iceland.
Not because we’re not slim, platinum blonde, and chic—though, except for my wife, we’re not. Not because we don’t fit in at all-night clubs blasting European techno—though we don’t. Not because we don’t enjoy fermented shark meat, and don’t sit still enough in volcanic thermal pools—though we don’t. And not because we rooted against the Icelandic national team in the classic Mighty Ducks 2—though we did, and fervently.
We’re unwelcome in Iceland because of Down syndrome.
This week, CBS News reported that only one or two children with Down syndrome are born in Iceland each year. And that Down syndrome has been “basically eradicated from Iceland.” The story reported that Icelanders—some Icelanders, at least—perceive aborting disabled children as an act of mercy—“preventing suffering for the child and for the family.”
If we showed up in Reykjavik with a pair of children with Down syndrome—as many as are born in Iceland each year—I suspect we’d put a crimp in the cool Nordic vibe.
Icelanders are right: Disabled people often do suffer. The French are right: The disabled are often a burden. Sometimes that burden feels overwhelming. Parenting disabled children is not a saccharine or sentimental experience. Neither is welcoming them into a community. The intellectually disabled are often demanding and dependent. They can be exhausting.
But we all can be exhausting. We all can be demanding. We all must depend on someone. The difference is how well we think we hide it. The visible weaknesses of the intellectually disabled hold up a mirror to the weaknesses most of us try so hard to hide. Shunning—or aborting—disabled people lets us pretend that we are stronger, smarter, and more independent than we really are.
It’s sad to think that France, Iceland, and many other countries have closed themselves off to the experiences of knowing and loving disabled people. But the problem isn’t just in those countries. Lots of us are afraid to encounter the intellectually disabled. We’re afraid of what they might show us about ourselves.
J. D. Flynn writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.