The miracle of 'shorty'

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Oct 06, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

The beauty of "Shorty" is that it conveys how Walter Simms is an utterly complete person. He understands honor, accomplishment, the dignity of work, family, faith, loss, love, joy and -- oh, yeah -- the thrill of athletic victory.

How to fight the termination of children with Down syndrome? The first step is for doctors to stop trying to scare parents out of having such children. Mary Salter, a Florida mother who has a Down syndrome son and has written about it, says, "I can't tell you how many times doctors who have seen my son have said to me, 'Didn't you know ahead of time?'"

The rest depends on us as a society choosing to value all of our members equally. A huge advance for children with Down syndrome came when we simply decided to stop institutionalizing them. You can do your small part in a wider campaign of acceptance by having a special greeting ready the next time you run into someone with Down syndrome, and by supporting the National Down Syndrome Society (www.ndss.org).

One of the most remarkable things about Walter Simms is his unshakable determination to be included. He says at one point in "Shorty": "I feel great. This world, I'm a part of it!"

Hallelujah, hallelujah.