The Academy Awards don't have a category for "Best Celebration of Human Dignity and the Wonder of Life." If it did, the new documentary "Shorty" would win running away.
"Shorty" brings us the life of Walter "Shorty" Simms, a 56-year-old with Down syndrome who is a fixture at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Simms has been the all-around Mr. Fix It -- gathering towels, painting, whatever -- for the football team for 28 years, and is the team's most passionate fan. His full life is a testament to his spirit, his family and his Hampden-Sydney community.
Simms is a great enthusiast. He is given to pumping his fist, "wonderful" is one of his favorite words, and he could out-hug Bill Clinton any day. You will laugh, cry and marvel watching him go about his daily business. But if you are aware of the fate of most babies with Down syndrome, you can't watch this movie -- to be released Oct. 18 -- without a sense of sadness.
We say we are a "compassionate" society, and we make a quasi-religion of celebrating difference. Yet these different children, who make a special call on our resources of love, are systematically eliminated in the womb. Estimates are that 80 percent to 90 percent of parents who learn from prenatal tests that the child might have Down syndrome end the pregnancy. One pediatrician calls it "a cultural norm" to end such pregnancies. Shame on us.
It is hard to blame the parents. Abortion in such cases is a decision born of fear, heartbreak and a misbegotten sense of compassion. But "Shorty" will help potential parents understand what a tragic choice termination is -- what it denies the child, the world and themselves.
There is no denying the difficulties to be faced by children with Down syndrome and by their parents. The children will suffer mild to moderate mental retardation and have trouble speaking. More than half of babies with Down syndrome have a congenital heart condition. They are at higher risk for hypothyroidism and Alzheimer's disease.
But the future of such children can be looked at in a different way: Children with Down syndrome have an increased "risk" to have an uncommonly sweet disposition and an irrepressible sense of humor. They are an imminent "danger" to prompt those around them to understand the meaning of love and life more deeply.
In recent decades, "the quality of life" -- to use that slightly chilling phrase -- of people with Down syndrome has improved dramatically. Thanks to the activism of parents (and the attentiveness of liberal politicians), services are better than ever. Most Down children will go to public schools and end up working for salary. Life expectancy is now roughly 55 years.