Did you know that having one extra chromosome can change everything about you? That single chromosome is the difference between society considering you able-bodied or disabled. Down syndrome—or Trisomy 21—is a condition in which someone has one more chromosome on the 21st pair. This disability can affect brain development, physical features, speech, and more.
My brother Ryan has Down syndrome, and he has been a huge blessing in my life, though it saddens me when people don’t view him through the same lens as they view me.
An accepting community
I remember the night before Ryan’s freshman year of high school. He sat calmly on the floor in front of the TV dealing various decks of cards, while I paced the unfinished basement with racing thoughts. Ryan was going to the same high school that I just graduated from. I had a decent number of friends who would be seniors and who could look out for him, but how would the younger classmen treat him? Would he get along with others? Would he be lonely?
As I paced the basement, a flashback filled my mind. I sat with friends inside a middle school bus as we drove alongside a busload of students with disabilities. Insults, slurs, and mocking noises echoed throughout the “normal” bus. My fellow middle schoolers pointed their fingers at the unknown passengers on the other bus. Laughter erupted. “Retards! Look at those retards!” a “friend” joked.
I became paralyzed inside, not knowing how to respond. I may have smiled to protect my hurt and confusion. I walked home from the bus stop with my head down. About an hour later, the school bus dropped off Ryan. He walked through the front door with a big smile on his face. We gave each other a “bro hug.”
God loves underdogs
Those images were why I was so nervous about Ryan entering high school. I remembered being in high school. Those students can be cruel. I prayed for my little brother: “God, guide Ryan with angels along his way.”
As Ryan’s high school career progressed, I started to see that God loves the underdogs.
During Ryan’s freshmen year, God used a compassionate and humble special education aide to not only be Ryan’s angel, but also to be his “girlfriend.” Amber thought it was cute that Ryan called her his girlfriend.
Ryan’s sophomore year was monumental. His special education teacher, Jen Ottinger, told the director of the student council that Ryan should join the student council because he would promote diversity and everyone would love him. Rock Canyon High would now have its first member of the student council who had a disability. And Ryan’s presence there did have a positive effect in unifying the school.
My father remembers a scene at a back-to-school dance where Ryan walked up to the middle of the floor and started the dance party. He mimicked years of dance moves from movies, music videos, and TV shows. A circle of people had gathered around Ryan when Taylor, the largest kid in the school—6’4″, 230 pounds—approached Ryan. This giant quickly moved his fist toward him. Then he smiled and gave Ryan a fist bump. Taylor was the football team’s captain and had become friends with Ryan. It was very comforting to know Ryan had a bodyguard.
During Ryan’s junior year, he was featured in the school newspaper. The article said he was a man of “few words yet many smiles” and proceeded to discuss Down syndrome and Ryan’s joyful presence. My mom was also interviewed for the article, and she quoted 1 Samuel 16:7, “The Lord said to Samuel: ‘Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The Lord looks into the heart.’”
And Ryan has a huge heart.
That same year, he began dating Rachel, who also has Down syndrome. Now that Ryan actually had a girlfriend, he would ask my parents daily: “Does Ryan have a girlfriend?”
“Yes, Rachel is your girlfriend,” my parents would say.
Then he would ask: “Does Pete have a girlfriend?”
“No, he doesn’t,” my parents would respond.
Ryan obviously knew the answers to those questions; he loved mocking me for my singleness.
The importance of friends
Ryan and Rachel were, and still are, the cutest couple. I remember a very special Homecoming when a limo drove them and a group of their peers to the dance. When they arrived, Ryan and Rachel started the dance party.
Today, Ryan will talk about his old friends and experiences from Rock Canyon, but he doesn’t dwell on the past. After his final prom, he didn’t want to go to the after-prom party; he was ready to go home.
This isn’t a happily-ever-after story, though God continues to bless Ryan and our family. God has provided an amazing Christian-based community program for Ryan, where he sees Rachel a few times a week. I do worry about what Ryan’s life will look like as my parents and Ryan get older. Yet, God will continue to guide him and provide.
Speaking of worry, 11 years later, I have been able to spot why I was so nervous about Ryan entering high school. I worried that his peers might label Ryan as “retarded.” Without realizing it, I made an idol of status, overvaluing how others perceived Ryan.
We are all imperfect in some way. Why base our hope on status when we can be perfect in the eyes of God? And, indeed, Ryan is absolutely perfect in the Heavenly Father’s eyes.
I am thankful for the people who encouraged Ryan, who didn’t limit him by strictly defining him as disabled, and who understood that he had different gifts and human potential.
I cannot promise that God will give success for your sibling or friend who may have a disability. However, I can promise that God uses the unlikely and the overlooked to humble the proud and the “normal.”