Why The Newscast About Ryan Langston Left Me With a Heavy Heart


Many of we parents in the Down syndrome community waited eagerly for the segment that was to air this evening on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams: a piece about the suddenly famous Ryan Langston, the little boy with Down syndrome in the recent Target and Nordstrom ads that have been a hot topic on blogs, Facebook, and elsewhere.

I caught the segment on the internet after it had aired.  I, like so many other people, had anticipated a wholly moving and inspiring piece, a glimpse into this wondrous but average little boy’s life.  And on the surface, that’s what we got.

To some, to many, any press is good press.  And I wondered, as I watched and felt something like a stone sink in the pit of my stomach, “Am I overreacting?  Am I being nitpicky?  Am I the only one who’s watching this and feels like crying?”

Ryan Langston is a beautiful little boy with lots of energy, a mop of blond hair, lots of talent and a sense of humor, two parents who adore him, a twin brother (who does not have Ds), and a penchant for knowing exactly what to do for a camera.  And this news segment was going to highlight the very normalcy of a little boy with Down syndrome.  So what about this whole thing could possibly be getting me down?

Here, you watch:

http://dailynightly.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/01/16/10168449-child-model-with-down-syndrome-inspires-thousands

Did you pick up on it?  The part where Anne Thompson informs us that Ryan “attends a school for Down syndrome children . . . .”?

Why is it so difficult for People First Language to take hold for folks?  I would like to think that a news outfit like NBC would do their homework before scripting a newscast that is meant to be an advocacy piece.  How could a simple thing like appropriate terminology be overlooked?

But even more disheartening was hearing that this talented, smart little boy, who, as the news piece pointed out, can do so many of the things that most “average” kids his age can do – and some things most cannot do, like rock a Nordstrom ad – does not attend a regular school like most kids – like his twin brother – but instead, a separate school.  A special school.  A school for Down syndrome children.

I make no judgment against Ryan’s parents.  I do not claim to know the circumstances that led to Ryan’s enrollment in a separate special ed school.  It was just a very strange juxtaposition: a celebration of a child who is showing the world that Down syndrome is not so different, but a child who is separated, segregated nonetheless.

It hurts my heart.  I don’t want that for Finn.  I want Finn, and all children and people with Down syndrome to be fully accepted, embraced, and included.  I want them to be welcomed to live and play and work and walk – and, yes, learn – alongside everyone else.

Is that ever going to happen?

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13 Comments on “Why The Newscast About Ryan Langston Left Me With a Heavy Heart”

  1. Gerald
    January 17, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    After years of mainstreaming our son who has down syndrome in some really great schools, we put him in a special needs class. The truth was, he was just miserable in a class with a teacher and class not equip to handle him. And after the novelty of being a kid with downs wore off, he was isolated in his class, always by himself. He was always an outsider. It was really really sad to watch him so isolated. They tried very hard to include him, but he was different and he knew it.

    When we finally put him in a special needs class, he came alive in a way that we had never seen before. He was happy! He was loved. He finally belonged.

    The teachers in the special needs class loved our son, the other teachers sort of put up with him (political correctness). I know that every downs child and every situation is different, if the child is happy and loved, that is what matters.

    Our son went through much, several open heart surgeries, many painful invasive medical procedures, many many stays at the children’s hospital. He died five years ago at the age of ten due to an overdose of his heart meds. (mistake by the pharmaceutical company)

    His happiness while he was with us was most important. Loving him vs. putting up with him was the difference…. and he knew the difference.

  2. Chrystal
    January 17, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    I hear you. And it irks me immensely to hear non-PFL used. But, I will say that, as much as I am an advocate for full inclusion, I’ve seen/heard of some schools for children with Ds that are AWESOME and I have to wonder that if one were available to us, if we would be interested. This schooling thing is rough, yo. And if I could find the “perfect” environment for M (small classes, involved staff/administration, treatment as an individual regarding educational goals), I don’t know…I might be swayed.

  3. Amy Heyde
    January 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    I have worked in a special preschool for children with disabilities…not specifically Down syndrome, but CP, autism, and DS, traumatic head injuries…lots of different kids. While “typical” children were allowed into the school and the classes were integrated…this school was the school of choice for anyone with kids with disabilities who wanted to give their kids the best help they could get. The school is equipped with very most capable specialists to deal with problems and situations as they came up with these kids. The therapists, the special ed teachers as well as the regular teachers, the aides, even physicians who came into the preschool to help deal with medical issues….could not be replicated in another preschool. There was a time when we were not sure if my son had autism. We sent him to this school. We went from having a very frusterated and non verbal child…to a content non verbal child because they taught him a way to communicate with us…and then after we had used picture boards and sign language for a while to communicate…we now have a very verbal and happy boy! Anyways…while I understand integration is imortant and most in the medical field believe this is extremely beneficial to any kid with a disability…sometimes you have to go to the place where they have the best people to help your child so that your child can really make strides!

  4. zolmes
    January 17, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

    As someone who spends a lot of the time in the Deaf community, where there is near-universal hatred of mainstream schools and many, many members wish they had go to Deaf schools instead, it’s always interesting to contrast that with the advocacy of parents in the Down syndrome community which tends to go the other direction.

    And on the one hand, I agree–I think full inclusion of people with Down syndrome in schools, in workplaces, in EVERYWHERE is important and will fight for it. On the other hand, I have known parents who are so gung-ho about showing how “typical” their kid is and how “normal”, they reject activities that would allow their child to build a community with other kids with Down syndrome (such as Special Olympics, camps, etc). I can’t and won’t judge any parents decision, but those are the kids I have noticed become the loneliest. When inclusion works it’s a wonderful, beautiful thing. When it doesn’t, you get lonely kids who are frustrated and ostracized (and this is across disability, race, and sexual orientation).

    It’s just ironic, I suppose, that some of the parents who fight the hardest for their kids to be included because disabilities are normal and not scary also can be the parents least likely to let their kid interact with the disabled community.

    Everyone deserves to be included, but conversely, everyone deserves friends and peers who understand them and their struggles, fundamentally. It’s why immigrant communities are so powerful, it’s why the LGBT community is so important for so many people, and it’s why the Deaf community fights so hard for Deaf schools and ASL. I would love to see an emergence of an even larger Down syndrome community in my lifetime–people who have been and are included at every level of society, but who also can support and understand each other in a way that others can’t.

  5. NGonzalez
    January 17, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

    I googled this today to read a reaction just like yours. Thank you, I felt the same exact way.

  6. Alison
    January 18, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    Norm Kunc is a fabulous activist who has some great things to say on this topic. One of his stories from his own childhood is to point out how ironic it is to put a bunch of kids who can’t talk in a room together, and then call it “speech therapy.” He’s a huge advocate of inclusion–and REAL inclusion, not politically correct, “sit in the back of the classroom and be quiet” inclusion. As am I: we have a truly inclusive college program for people with intellectual disabilities at my school, and it’s amazing. When people talk about how they can’t do inclusion, I think, “Geez, I taught an inclusive college class, and it worked really well!”

    But Norm also points out the need for community. He says there are significant differences between segregation and community. For one, segregation is mandated from outside. Community is chosen by those who are part of it. He actually had a whole list of distinctions, which I foolishly didn’t write down when I heard him talk.

    • starrlife
      January 20, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

      Amen. Norm is the best. I utterly and totally agree with Alison and Lisa. What happens is that people are seeking inclusion in a school system which is set up to segregate everyone- not just our kids, many kids so that the supports our kids needs are ONLY in separate settings. Pisses me off. Now that does not mean that there shouldn’t be a choice for separate schools if that is what someone wants. Kind of like gender based schools or activities- it’s all about choice baby!

      • Alison
        January 21, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

        I’m so glad you love Norm, starrlife! I can’t remember if you’ve met him before, but I hope you have. His ideas continue to affect me, and I’m eager to hear him speak again.

  7. CJ
    January 18, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

    Two steps forward and one step back! Hopefully, one day our “dream” will be realized. I hope.

  8. Joyce
    January 19, 2012 at 11:11 pm #

    Truthfully what makes me even crazier is all the damn attention to the ad. It was a perfect ad with no hype, until all the attention was drawn to it, by us in the Ds community. Now it is no longer just a kid with Down syndrome who happens to be in the ad along with all the other kids. No other child in that Target ad or Nordstrom ad was on television being interviewed because he was a model in an ad. Kids R us had models in their regular advertising campaigns back in the early 90’s. Sarah was a model for Glamour Shots, her face in malls all over the country. Just there. No big hoopla because I think that defeats the purpose.

    The school thing. I think it is more like five steps back. Why? It’s been hard for me to sit still and be quiet about it. I’m just watching this next generation trying to figure out where they are going. Hey that could be a good blog post for me:)

    Love your insight as always Lisa. Keep up the good fight.

  9. Megan Fischer
    February 3, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    Here”s the thing, I volunteer at the school that Ryan attends. It’s truly an amazing school and a loving environment. Ryan will attend for probably one more year and then be mainstreamed or move on. Ryan’s school is for children up to age 9, but most graduate earlier. The child gets to graduate when the teachers believe that he or she is ready to be mainstreamed. Being at a school like the one he attends gives him the attention he needs to develop. I have watched him grow, both intellectually and socially. Schools like the one he is at is not to alienate children with down syndrome, but rather to prepare them for life. Honestly, if Ryan was mainstreamed, he would get little attention and probably not grow as a person like he has. He’s not placed at his school because his parents think he can’t “handle” being mainstreamed, but because he can get more one on one attention. Honestly, if you’re going to make the argument you did, why send kids to private schools? That’s separating them. So while, I understand what you are saying about mainstreaming, I think that you should read up on his school before saying that. I believe the same for any person on her who has bashed his school before actually knowing anything about it or seeing what it is like.

    • Lisa
      February 3, 2012 at 12:54 am #

      I don’t doubt what you say about the school Ryan attends being a good school. I think you’re missing the point, though. Schools like the one Ryan attends only exist because equal, quality education for kids with Down syndrome is rare in regular public schools. Ideally, true inclusion means that children of all abilities receive quality education and equal opportunities in learning in a regular public school. Those of us parents in favor of inclusion are striving for that.

      Also, I don’t think comparing private schools to special education schools is a fair comparison. Kids who attend private schools are not generally members of a class of people who have historically been, and continue to be marginalized. Apples and oranges. A more fair and accurate comparison would be separate special ed schools/classrooms and the segregated schools for blacks from a few decades back. Oppressed, marginalized people who were not receiving the same quality education or access to learning as their white peers.

  10. Megan Fischer
    February 3, 2012 at 12:15 am #

    I meant to type here, not her in the last sentence.

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