People with a disability don't need to be sterilised. They need to be supported, writes Naomi Chainey.
If Australian Story had produced an episode on my potential to engage in sexual relationships, get married and raise children - and give my naysaying parents more screen time than myself or my partner - I’d be ticked off. If they’d filmed a whole conversation about my potential sterilisation which did not include me, I’d be enraged. I imagine most people would feel the same way.
Of course, unlike Michael Cox and Taylor Anderton, who were put through this precise experience, I do not have Down syndrome. People feel less entitled to weigh in on my potential parenthood, except to inform me that I’ll probably want kids eventually and getting my tubes tied is a very permanent decision.
Like Michael and Taylor, however, I have a disability which would impact considerably on my ability to adhere to societal parenting norms. No doubt if I popped one out, I’d need a lot of help from my family. I might even turn to my local council or the NDIS for whatever support was available. No one would question it much, because unlike Michael and Taylor, I am not infantilised. My reproductive freedom is not inhibited by double standards.
Adults with intellectual disabilities are adults.
The pervasive idea that people with Down syndrome are children in adult bodies needs to go. Adults with intellectual disabilities are adults, grappling with all the same emotional and sexual needs the rest of us are dealing with, and with all the same inherent rights the rest of us hold.
Article 23 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) – which Australia has signed - is very clear on this matter, stating that "the right of all persons with disabilities who are of marriageable age to marry and to found a family on the basis of free and full consent of the intending spouses is recognised."
It was clear to me watching Australian Story that Michael and Taylor know exactly what they want. They are not confused. They are also aware of being held to a different standard than their peers. They know it’s not common to be forbidden to have “sleepovers” with your partner in your 20s, or to be advised to wait five years before moving in with your fiancé. They know that young couples with plans to have children are not customarily grilled to the Nth degree on their capacity to parent, with clear insinuation that they’re incapable. They understand this, and they’re justifiably frustrated.
“I know that their heart's in the right place,” Michael says compassionately of his parents. “But being overprotective is strictly not on with your child, even if they have Down syndrome.”
What was fascinating watching this was the way evidence of Michael and Taylor’s difference – lack of personal space etiquette or talking repetitively - was used as evidence of their general incapability, while evidence of completely normal adult behavior - incessantly phoning your first love, sneaking into bed with your partner, dreaming of a big wedding - was also a tick against them. They were either too odd to be normal, or too naïve in their normality.
Somehow, practical ideas on how their dreams may actually be achieved never made it into the narrative.
Michael’s suggestion of making money by running a café was portrayed on Australian Story as a pie in the sky idea, along with their $100,000 wedding, but examples of people with Down syndrome doing just that can be found in the US and Turkey, and if anyone has the passion and drive to bring about a similar enterprise in Australia, my money’s on the semi-celebrity swimming champions with the wall of medals. Michael and Taylor are clearly not underachievers when they commit to a goal, and many people with Down syndrome can and do find employment. (Also, that romantic beach wedding with the sunset kiss sounded very doable on a small budget.)
Having children might be a challenge for this young couple, both in terms of their fertility (statistically low in both men and women with Down syndrome) and the practical day to day, but frankly, parenting is a challenge for everyone, and it’s worth considering the possibilities.
A couple with Down syndrome could actually have access to support services.
While Australian Story left us with the impression that any parenting shortfalls would land in the laps of the grandparents, a couple with Down Syndrome could actually have access to support services. The NDIS, for example, is committed to providing “supports that increase the participant’s independence, as well as supports that enable the participant to enjoy social and community activities independent of their informal carers.” In line with the CRPD, Australian parents with disabilities will soon have access to the “reasonable and necessary support” they require in an individualised package designed to suit their particular needs, including parenting needs.
Perhaps they’d also need family support (a lot of people do). Perhaps other members of their community might lend a hand. Perhaps a taste of independent living would result in some rethinking of their plans. Life is full of maybes, but ultimately, it is the right of any person, with or without a disability, to decide their own sexual, romantic, and reproductive destinies. Michael and Taylor deserve that opportunity as much as anyone else.