The Problem With The New Down Syndrome PSA Starring Olivia Wilde

The video opens with Olivia Wilde, the famous actress, tying back her hair and straightening her sweater. As she looks into the mirror, a female voice says, “This is how I see myself.” The voice continues, “I see myself as a daughter, a sister, a best friend. As a person you can rely on. I see myself meeting someone that I can share my life with. I see myself singing, dancing, and laughing, until I cannot breathe. And also crying sometimes.” The voice continues with its inspirational message of possibilities, as Wilde acts out the scenes. She’s with her family, on the couch with her lover, on stage, at work in a restaurant, and more. This thin beautiful white woman sure seems to be enjoying a nice life.

But it’s not Wilde’s voice that’s doing the speaking. At the end of the video, we see AnnaRose, a young woman with Down syndrome, who asks, “How do you see me?”

The video, made by the well-connected and well-funded firm Saatchi and Saatchi, is intended to promote World Down Syndrome Day, held every year on March 21. Their goal is to make you, the viewer, reflect on this question: When you look at a person with Down syndrome, do you see a person with the potential to live a full and complex life, or do you see only the disability?

It’s a valid query, and the people involved with the film are clearly well-intentioned in their desire to fight anti-disability stigma. Alas, their artistic choice to suggest that AnnaRose sees herself as a neurotypical woman does just the opposite.

Unfortunately, the Down syndrome parent community and a media too long accustomed to promoting inspiration porn loves this stuff, especially when there’s a celebrity to fawn over. The video has been shared by major Down syndrome organizations, the hashtag #HowDoYouSeeMe is mostly positive, and the whole thing is being favorably covered by the press. The message — don’t see disability — resonates with the abled parent-media complex.

This message, though, is all wrong — because we should absolutely see disability.

I spoke to several disabled cultural critics about the video. The broader disability rights movement has worked long and hard to promote disability as an identity and an aspect of diversity to celebrate. And among this group, unlike parents and neurotypical journalists, reaction against the movie has been fierce.

Dominick Evans, a filmmaker and activist, told me:

“#HowDoYouSeeMe reinforces the ableist ideal that disabled people would rather imagine themselves as not disabled, and that they can only be beautiful, wonderful, and successful without a disability. Rather than present an idea that is so obviously the non-disabled ideal for how disabled people should see themselves, we need to work towards integrating people into a society that currently sees disability as something that is horrifying, ugly, and not acceptable. Disability is beautiful. Disability is normal.”

Rick Godden, a literary critic, noted in a blog post that in the film “the disabled body is effectively erased in the ad except in the form of a spectral voice and the final image. This is a visual version of a statement I’ve heard again and again — ‘You’ve done so much despite your disability.’” Karin Hitselberger, who writes at Claiming Crip, says, “The actress with Down syndrome is capable of being all the things she sees herself as, but the dangerous message is the idea that she needs to erase her disability to do so.”

Fortunately, it’s not necessary to erase disability in order to promote the notion that people with Down syndrome are whole, complex, competent individuals.

Here’s a film from Argentina that opens with a teenage boy with Down syndrome waking up, bleary-eyed, at his house. He stands at the gates of his school, silent and surly, as his mother drives away. Then, smiling suddenly, he changes into a Ramones shirt and a black leather wristband, stashing his school shirt by a tree. Wielding his mass transit card as a talisman of accessibility and independence, he travels the city, listening to music, looking at tattoos, and hanging out with a diverse group of friends in the park. They play guitar, they laugh and joke. He buys a snack. As the day grows late, he hops on a train, changes back into his shirt, and awaits his mother, carefully reacquiring his bored, surly look.

At the end, the video reveals the filmmaker, Serena, a 14-year-old girl with Down syndrome. This video therefore is not by a slick production firm with connections to world-class celebrities, but by and for the people it’s about. Serena smiles at the camera, tosses her hair, talks about her love of making films, and says “solo los rebeldes cambian el mundo” (only the rebels change the world).

She’s right. It’s an act of rebellion for people with disabilities, perhaps especially those with intellectual disabilities, to seize control of their own narratives.

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