This article first appeared in The Spinoff on 3rd August 2018
Anyone debating the controversy around Shortland Street need to remember those with Downs are not some abstraction but real and important people, writes Sarah Paterson-Hamlin, whose day job involves running a charity for kids with Down Syndrome called the UpsideDowns Education Trust
Shortland Street’s latest plotline has it all; pregnancy, medical drama, scandalised tones, hastily googled medical symptoms, unplanned sex, and Chris Warner. What more could we want from our national soap?
A couple of nights ago (spoiler alert) Zoe Carlson broke the news to her baby daddy, Dr Love himself, that their child was considered to be high risk for Down Syndrome. Chris’s reaction to this was … less than ideal. He immediately implies Zoe should terminate before listing a bunch of things a baby with Down Syndrome might face. Finally, he tells Zoe she should go get herself an amniocentesis, a procedure which carries an increased risk of miscarriage, to be sure whether or not the latest Warner has Down Syndrome.
Shortland Street has a huge following in the Down Syndrome community, exemplified by the beautiful episode of Amy Street that aired on TVNZ in 2016. It’s therefore no surprise that this plotline attracted immediate outrage and frustration from the New Zealand Down Syndrome Association and others. In the episode, Chris parrots the kinds of things families with a new Downs diagnosis come across all to often – including from doctors – so it’s no wonder nerves were touched hearing these same things repeated in such a significant pop culture space.
Organisations such as the Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network exist to combat this exact scenario, where a diagnosis is delivered and explained by a medical professional as a list of terrifying-sounding complications, often preceded by the words “I’m sorry”. I can’t tell you how many heart-rending stories I’ve heard of diagnoses that made new parents feel like their lives were over. But, for every one of these stories, there invariably follows another story about how extraordinary their child is, how much they’ve improved their lives and changed them as a person for the better, and how they wished they’d known this on that day the doctor said “I’m sorry”. As the character Finn says later in the episode, “there’s thousands of stories out there”.
Unfortunately, Chris Warner reflects the reality of a lot of medical professionals who see children with Downs as a list of possible symptoms (many of which babies with Downs are at a similar risk for as typically developing children) and communicate this view to new parents.
So, should Shortland Street be hauled over the coals for this, and does the storyline “reinforce a lot of the prejudice that having a child with Down syndrome is a burden”, as the New Zealand Down Syndrome Association have said? That remains to be seen. Chris’s words and attitudes are undoubtedly appalling, and shouldn’t be uttered by any decent human, let alone the country’s most famous fictional doctor. But they are Chris’s words, and not Shortland Street’s. The soap could be about to launch into a sensitive and well-researched plotline that covers all the challenging angles of pre-natal testing, the traumatising diagnosis experience many parents go through, the prejudice people with Down syndrome face in our communities, the shocking lack of public funding for essential early intervention therapies for kids with Down syndrome and other special needs, and a whole host of other prescient issues.
Ever since Dr Ropata wasn’t in Guatemala anymore, Shortland Street has been an important space in our pop culture for difficult national conversations, as Sam Brooks discusses in more detail in his article. NIPT, the high-accuracy prenatal testing that can give near certainty of a Downs diagnosis without the need for an invasive amniocentesis, is increasingly available in New Zealand and is being publicly funded in a number of countries overseas. In light of that, perhaps this is exactly the kind of scrutiny of our medical professional’s attitudes that we need to be having right now.
OK, it wouldn’t have been that hard for Shortland Street to consult groups like the New Zealand Down Syndrome Association, but let’s hope that was an oversight, and Shortland Street is about to start increasing awareness in Aotearoa around how amazing our kids and adults with Down syndrome are, and how they can have such a positive impact on our lives that I’m welling up just writing this.
Jane Austen was probably aware that not all single men “in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Dickens didn’t think that if the poor were going to die, then “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Come to that, neither did the Muppets. Our creative world is an important place where we can take time and examine what concerns us with the depth and variety of perspectives that the political world just can’t offer.
Shelley says that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, and believe it or not, you could be justified in replacing the word “poet” with “soap opera script writing team” in this context. What these characters say matters, because they have influence and are heard by thousands. More importantly, they are heard by those with Down syndrome who are perfectly capable of understanding the implications. That’s why we have to be so careful when we have a voice like the one Shortland Street and Chris Warner has at our disposal. The same goes for all debates regarding things like screening. It’s vital that these public discussions take place in the full knowledge that people with Downs are real and important people. They understand. And they are listening.