Down syndrome angel, angel and Down syndrome.
Whether it’s a person with Down syndrome being compared to an angel or angels being people with Down syndrome, I’m not sure, but angels are linked to Down syndrome like peanut butter is to jam.
It comes from people outside the Down syndrome community.
Perhaps “angel” is used because people want to acknowledge difference and they think that by calling a child with Down syndrome an “angel,” they are really saying that they think the child is precious and wonderful and at least as valuable as a child without Down syndrome.
It comes from people within the Down syndrome community too.
Including organizations like these:
These, by the way, are just a teeny tiny sampling of what I saw out there online as I was collecting screenshots for this post. It’s frankly incredible how many organizations are hooked to the concept of the “Down syndrome angel,” using the word “angel” in connection with “Down syndrome.”
Let’s take a look at what the word “angel” means, and some things to consider when linking that word with a person with Down syndrome.
Angel: noun, an attendant of God; a sweet, kind person.
Synonyms: darling, dear, dream, gem, jewel, paragon, saint; archangel, cherub, guardian, seraph, spirit, sprite, celestial being, divine messenger, God’s messenger, heavenly being, holy being, spiritual being
1. It’s dehumanizing.
The word “angel” sneaks by because it’s such a positive word, but it frames people with Down syndrome as an “other” – they are not like everyone else.
2. “Good” stereotyping oppressed people is still oppression.
“All black people are good singers, all Asians are smart, all gay guys know how to style women’s clothes”, etc. It is offensive to stereotype people, even when it seems positive.
That it feels positive to the speaker shows that it is coming from a place of societal power and privilege.
3. It Helps Perpetuate a Cycle of Inequality
Angels don’t have civil rights.
Angels don’t receive fair pay for work.
Angels don’t receive justice when they are killed (except through God, but that’s another post).
Angels aren’t regular people, so they are not expected to have regular needs, like the need for sex.
When you talk about people with Down syndrome as “angels”, you are (however unintentionally) perpetuating a cycle of inequality with people with Down syndrome.
4. It Doesn’t Help When the Babies Become Adults
Any organization or person that purports to be advocating for people with Down syndrome and continues to use the word “angel” in their verbiage needs to take a long, hard look at what they are promoting.
They need to ask themselves if this is really a message that is worth perpetuating. Will it be helpful for children with Down syndrome as they grow into adults? Does it help adults with Down syndrome?
Because every child with Down syndrome that we hold in the light and proclaim to be an “angel” is going to grow up and will have grown up needs that being labeled an “angel” will not serve. Is that fair or right, for our community to lead them into that corner smother them some more with inequality and drench them in stereotypes?
Those are the things that I think are worth considering when seeing or continuing (in any way) with the linkage between “angel” and “Down syndrome” – that is, think about the fact that it’s dehumanizing, it’s a stereotype, it helps perpetuate a cycle of inequality and it doesn’t help people with Down syndrome – especially when they become adults.
Added to that, I would ask anyone who uses it to honestly consider whether or not it’s something they would themselves use in regard to themselves:
Am I an angel? – I can mentally hear people chuckling when asked if they are an angel, and how they’d respond with a smiling, “I’m no angel!” – Well, if you are no angel, then a person with Down syndrome isn’t either. They pick their nose, have sex and binge-watch Netflix too, you know.
Would I want to be called an angel? – Would you? I know I wouldn’t.I know that I’m just a person who is trying as best as I can to make sense of this life, grow spiritually and have fun; I’m not some freakin’ example to anyone and I’m not closer to God than anyone else is. We are all equal in the eyes of the Universe.
Apply those questions to this piece: do unto others, right? You don’t want to be called an angel; don’t call others an angel.
People with Down syndrome aren’t angels; they are people with an extra copy of the 21st chromosome; no more and no less.
Down syndrome is an intrinsic part of who they are; being an angel is not. You are not an angel either; you are beautiful and flawed and exactly as you were meant to be – just like someone with Down syndrome is.
Image credit : Melissa Kline Skavlem – thank you!!
Many thanks to everyone on my Facebook page who participated in this huge discussion about 2 years ago. xoxox I love you all, and I’m so grateful you dive into big subjects with me.
Meriah Nichols is a counselor. Solo mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one on the spectrum). Deaf, and neurodiverse herself, she’s a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.