A World Without Down’s Syndrome? – an artistic landscape less rich


One of the liveliest parts of the Unlimited Festival this year was the Youth Dance Platform, says event co-producer Kate Lovell. Ten inclusive dance companies of young people came from far and wide to perform on the Clore Ballroom stage. Thinking on the experience, whilst watching the recent BBC 2 documentary, A World Without Down’s? led Kate to question the disconnect between the medical world and the arts world.

Photograph of Magpie Dance High Flyers, five performers writhe around on the stage

Magpie Dance High Flyers performing at the Youth Dance Platform, Southbank Centre. Photograph: India Roper-Evans

A majority of the inclusive dance companies included young people with various learning disabilities, including those with Down’s Syndrome. Dance can be a liberating and exciting art form for those whom communication in this fast-paced world can be challenging or draining. I watched as young disabled people performed feats of agility and artistic skill with total commitment and passion.

The audience was one of the largest I saw at the festival; lively and engaged. I also witnessed the professionalism of the performers: they had traveled from as far as Wales and Plymouth and had less than thirty minutes to get into costume, before diving directly into their performance, without any rehearsal time on the stage.

These experiences at the Unlimited event played on my mind as I watched Sally Phillip’s documentary on BBC Two last week, A World Without Down’s Syndrome. Watching, there is a palpable disconnect between the medical professional’s attitude to disabled people, and that of the Arts.

Photograph of Sally Phillips hugging Halldóra,, a woman with Down's Syndrome from Iceland.

A World Without Down’s Syndrome? Image BBC/Dragonfly(C)

In the programme Phillips investigates the potential effect of a new pre-natal test, soon to be available on the NHS, which detects for Down’s Syndrome with 99% accuracy, entirely safe and non-invasive. She has a particular interest as her son, Olly, has Down’s Syndrome: she didn’t know until 10 days after his birth. Her only regret is the way in which the news was delivered to her by the medical professional who wept as they delivered the news.

Many people will and do see the new test as a scientific victory, a breakthrough, a chance to potentially eradicate Down’s Syndrome – but is this a good place to be? It feels sinister. When Phillips visits Iceland, where the termination rate is now 100% of women who get the diagnosis, she meets a 31 year old woman, working, engaged to her partner, with Down’s Syndrome, who feels second rate in a society that seems to be saying that her life isn’t worth living. It is difficult viewing.

In our artistic landscape, people with Down’s Syndrome and other learning disabilities are thriving: the output is far from second rate. The arts world is expanding to become more inclusive, and opportunities are increasing.

Mind the Gap, a leading company working with learning-disabled artists, are currently touring Mia nationally, exploring the issues faced by learning-disabled parents. Access All Areas pioneered on the Central School of Speech and Drama’s Performance Making Diploma for Learning Disabled Adults, and has an agency for professional learning disabled actors.

Last year, and coming back soon, Freewheelers Theatre presented Amandla!, performed by learning disabled actors, exploring the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. Important, artistically rigorous and politically interesting work is being made by the learning disabled community.

What an astounding difference in attitude: while the arts are supporting learning disabled actors into professional roles on our stages and TVs, and examining the nuance and challenges of being a parent as a learning disabled adult, the medical community are working on tests which may mean that people with Down’s Syndrome don’t make it past the foetal stage. And as Phillips exposes in the programme, the testing will not stop at Down’s, which makes disturbing viewing for a disabled audience.

It is undeniable that adults with Down’s Syndrome face many challenges. But as Phillips astutely recognises, if society rejects someone, “the problem is not the person”. People with Down’s Syndrome can and do live as fulfilled lives as anyone else, given the conditions to thrive.

Phillips comments that we are “gambling with society’s diversity”. With the variety of exciting work being presented by learning disabled artists, we’re also in danger of dampening the multiplicity of voices that make the UK arts scene as stirring and stimulating as it is currently.