A Victory For All of Us: Or My Tribute to Andrea Fay Friedman
In Recent News
You can Google her name and find about a dozen articles about recent events. Wikipedia even made mention of the incident which will no doubt go into the history books right after Janet Jackson's “Wardrobe Malfunction”. So I won't take the easy cop out of copying and pasting someone else's hard work.
So very briefly, Andrea Fay Friedman is an actress with Down Syndrome. She has appeared in Law and Order: Special Victim's Unit, Baywatch, and in the 1997 film Smudge. Her claim to fame at the moment and no doubt for as long as fans of Family Guy exist, is the part of Ellen in the recent episode Extra Large Medium.
Though I have not seen the episode I have heard enough summaries of it, with the line that has caused so much uproar with our prospective “next President”. Basically Ellen was a character in the episode who also had Down Syndrome and was in the same class as Seth Green's character Chris Griffin. Evidently Chris falls in love with her and she tells him, “My mom was the former governor of Alaska.”
The shot heard round the world, only this one didn't kill a wolf from a helicopter.
Immediately Palin attacked Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, on the assumption that the jab was intended for her son Trig. You all know Trig. We didn't stop hearing about him during the elections.
If you and I have met, then you have met someone with the diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. You will have met a man who is for the most part a fully functional adult with some eccentric interests that made him a target of bullying from both students and staff throughout his schooling years.
However, if you were to meet me you would likely not even know about the diagnosis until I told you about it, because Asperger's is not something that is wrong with me. There are no physical abnormalities. You can't “catch” Asperger's from me and there are no red flags in my health that you wouldn't find on anyone else. Asperger's Syndrome isn't even a disability in the real sense. At the very least it is a word that describes a series of characteristics that anyone could display at any given time. But if you were to meet me or anyone else with Asperger's, it might not occur to you that anyone at any point felt the need to place a label on me to identify those traits.
It took some two-bit shrink looking to write a book to slap me with the diagnosis, thus making my life relatively difficult in the preceding years, especially in early adulthood when a persistent relative took it upon herself to shout it from the rooftops. Fortunately I have long since gotten rid of these minor annoyances and continue to live as I probably would have had the school system not seen fit to waste the tax payer dollars by sending me to a state funded psychiatric clinic for evaluation.
A person with Down Syndrome, however, doesn't have the option of discretion, because there are several very obvious identifiers. Upon seeing someone with Down Syndrome all preconceived notions about the person's intelligence, personality, and disposition are forced to the front. If you're not related to the individual or interaction with him is not tied to your profession in anyway, your first instinct may be to avoid the person all together.
Yet, like a person with Asperger's, Autism or Cerebral Palsy, there is no “cookie cutter” for people with Down Syndrome. Although there are a lot of well meaning (Read: Celebrities, politicians and other ambiguously motivated individuals with an agenda to push) people out there who would like to make you feel otherwise, a person with Down Syndrome is an individual. They are not all “sweet natured”, God-loving individuals with childlike mentalities.
Andrea Fay Friedman is proof of this. She has worked in a law firm for twenty years and maintained a successful acting career on the side. Her family raised her with a sense of humor and didn't treat her like a disabled individual who couldn't move beyond the preconceptions.
Unfortunately it takes someone like Sarah Palin or Jenny McCarthy to over react to a statement made in a cartoon or a word written in a book before anyone notices anything. These people spearhead entire media campaigns telling you, the individual with Aspergers, or Autism, or Down Syndrome how you are supposed to feel about your condition. And if you tell them otherwise, well then you just don't know better.
The Current Leader of the "How You Should Feel" campaign
She Can't Name a Single Newspaper she's Read but she can write...
Yet somehow the Same
I don't know how many times people have told me, “Oh you're just in denial. You have a very real disability and it's effecting everything you do.”
The aforementioned relative would tell prospective employers or landlords about my “disability” before I even had a chance to meet them. Because of her “endorsement” I wound up losing a lot of very good opportunities because of all of the stigma and misconceptions about people with such diagnosis.
Having Down Syndrome, I can't imagine what Andrea must have gone through growing up. Her life now tells me that she was also someone whose parents didn't use her condition to get sympathy from others. She doesn't allow people to see the disability, she makes them see the woman she is and this is never more apparent than when she took the role of Ellen in Family Guy.
Yet in spite of all this, I can almost say with confidence that Andrea must have dealt with the same discrimination that anyone with Down Syndrome faces. The polite, sympathetic yet ignorant smile right before turning tail and running. People talking at or over her like she wasn't even there. Or when they do talk to her, talking in a slow and loud voice like she's stupid. I don't assume this because she has Down Syndrome, but because this is basically what I went through in the years after I was slapped with my diagnosis.
In that way I find myself having a lot in common with Andrea.
One of my Favorite Actors sums up my feelings about Palin quite nicely
What People Need to Realize
Like I said before, we're all individuals. Whether you have Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, ADHD, Biploar disorder, or whether you're just an asshole you can't take away our rights to be who we are.
Andrea made a bold move when she chose to speak the line. Like most people with a disability, Palin probably isn't even interested in her opinion. She instead choses to focus all of her ire on Seth MacFarlane and company for daring to make a joke at her expense. (Take Note: The joke was made at Palin, not at her son)
Maybe one day I'll get a part in a movie, or a play, or as a voice actor on Family Guy (If the fates are willing) and my character will have High Functioning Autism. And if my character has a line like “Yeah, my dad slapped his name on a box of Wheaties and calls it Flootie Flakes”, I will put all of my heart into it. Because at that point I will have gladly told the world that I do not define myself by a word but by who I chose to be.
Andrea: Thank you for scoring this victory for all of us.
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