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Is this TV show a 'game changer for people with Down syndrome'?

Posted August 2

The mother of a young man with Down syndrome who stars on A&E's "Born This Way" believes that the TV show — which offers a lens into what it's like to live with the genetic disorder — is a "game-changer" for people with disabilities.

Sandra McElwee, whose 22-year-old son, Sean, will appear on season two of "Born This Way," told "The Church Boys" podcast that Sean has always had a dream to be on television.

So, over the years, McElwee and her husband have enrolled Sean in acting classes to help guide him along in his goals and aspirations.

"He's auditioned for many things and never gotten a part before," McElwee said, noting that her son's articulation isn't the best. "But he has tenacity like nobody else … he just never gave up."

And that paid off, as Sean attended an audition and was subsequently hired for the A&E show.

Listen to McElwee discuss Down syndrome and her son's starring role in "Born This Way" here.

When producers cast Sean in "Born This Way" — a show that "follows a group of seven young adults born with Down syndrome along with their family and friends" — McElwee said she felt compelled to take part.

"That's when we really found out what the purpose was and I just had this little voice of God in my head going, 'Do it. This is going to be a game changer for people with Down syndrome,'" she said.

McElwee, who pointed to her faith throughout the interview, said that she believes that "God's hand is all over this project."

As for her reaction to a TV network taking on such a bold project? She said that she was anything but surprised.

"I'm not shocked at anything that's happened since the moment I was told Sean had Down syndrome," McElwee said through a chuckle. "I just kind of go with things at this point."

It's the impact of "Born This Way" that has been so profound, the mother said, as she knew deep down inside that exploring the lives of young people with Down syndrome on the small screen would have a big impact on the public at large.

After all, many people are unfamiliar with the genetic disorder and are, thus, not always well-versed in its true impact on those who have it.

Incorrect perceptions, McElwee said, are often the biggest barriers for those with disabilities, arguing that most people with disabilities simply need the "right opportunity" to show exactly what they're capable of.

"The biggest problem people with Down syndrome and any disability have is other peoples' fears," she said. "And the way you remove fear is by providing information."

McElwee continued, "They have the same challenges everyone else does … all they really need is opportunity."

Unfortunately, she said that opportunity isn't always afforded, sharing some of Sean's past struggles, including a drama teacher in high school who she said had no interest in allowing her son to perform in any shows.

"When I explained to the guy [that] Sean would be happy playing a rock on the stage, he still didn't cast him in the play until the other students found out," she said.

Sean's peers threatened not to perform unless he was given a part — an ultimatum that worked. It was this example that led McElwee to further explain the prejudice that she believes some with disabilities face.

"People have an idea of what they think people with disabilities … are like and what they're capable of," she said. "It is truly the definition of prejudice. You pre-judge."

Watch the trailer for the show here.

With "Born This Way" entering its second season, though, McElwee said that she's grateful that the world now has the chance to see seven adults who have Down syndrome live their lives in such a public way.

Despite people with disabilities having to deal so regularly with the fears that others have of the unknown, McElwee said that she's been overjoyed to see Sean helping throughout his life — and now through the show — to impact others' lives.

"He changes the lives of people he encounters around him," she said, explaining that some of his former classmates and friends have gone on to work in special education among other related fields. "He inspired them at an early age."

McElwee concluded, "He's not changing the world's perspective on people with Down syndrome."

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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