John, 28, is a budding rap artist; Rachel, 32, is very independent and has worked for the past three years as a mailroom assistant; Sean, 21, is a ladies’ man; Megan, 22, lives in Denver, goes to college and has her own business, but she’s determined to relocate to Los Angeles to become a film producer.
They are among the seven young adults whose lives intertwine in the new six-episode A&E real-life series “Born This Way,” premiering Tuesday at 10 p.m. You might expect to find the seven on shows like “Big Brother” or “The Real World,” except for the one thing they all have in common: They were born with Down Syndrome.
You won’t forget that fact as you watch the show’s premiere – that’s the last thing the show’s producers or most of its cast members would want. But in so many other ways, what they all go through in their day-to-day lives is a lot like what other people their age go through. They have career dreams, life plans, they love hanging out, listening to music, going bowling. But perhaps the most important take-away from the first episode is that while they all have Down syndrome, it doesn’t make them all the same.
Steve, 24, stands out because he has a very rare form DS called mosaic down syndrome, which his father, David, explains means that he is very high functioning. From a physiological perspective, it means that some cells in his body have that extra chromosome that causes Down Syndrome, but others have the standard number of chromosomes.
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Steve calls himself “the Matt Damon of the bunch” of his DS friends.
When Cristina was born 25 years ago, her mother, Beatriz, was resigned to the probability that she was not going to “have a relationship with my daughter like other moms.” Her husband, Mariano, felt similarly, that he wouldn’t be fretting when she was out late on a date. They laugh now about how wrong they were.
Laurie and Gary didn’t know at first that their newborn Rachel, now 32, had Down Syndrome, but when they were told, they adjusted fairly easily to the reality. Gary says having a child with DS doesn’t mean you miss out on special moments, but, rather, that they may come at different times in their child’s life.
To one degree or another, most of the seven “Born This Way” cast members have not only accepted who they are but have determined to live their lives on their terms.
Elena, 28, is still struggling. She gets upset if someone says the term Down Syndrome instead of “DS.” When her friend John kids her that she has a funny laugh, she is wounded. It’s worse when he calls her crazy. At one point, while the group is out bowling, Elena reacts so badly to John calling her crazy that she runs away in tears.
Elena was born in Japan. Her mother, Hiromi, admits she cried frequently as Elena was growing up, wishing she could have given birth to a “normal” child. It took her 20 years to accept Elena for who she is, and it’s difficult not to see a link between Hiromi’s difficulty with having a child with DS and Elena’s fragile emotional state today. “I don’t know why God gave me that in the first place,” she says ruefully.
Compare Elena’s self-image to Megan, who is a spokesperson for Down Syndrome awareness in her native Colorado.
“I don’t want the whole society to limit me because of this,” she says emphatically. “I am beating the odds.”
Megan’s drive is typical of a young woman of 22, but her single mother, Kris, understands that her own reaction to her desire to move to LA and live on her own isn’t necessarily the way other mothers of a 22-year-old would react. Megan wants kids, but while the average life expectancy for a person with Down Syndrome has increased to 50, that is just the average. And without being maudlin, Kris worries about having to raise a grandchild herself.
Future episodes will explore medical issues, as well as the matter of dating, marriage, having kids of their own.
“Born This Way” was in fact created by Bunim-Murray Productions, the people behind “The Real World.” In so many ways, the six episodes of the docu-series could have been an exploitive misfire, but that possibility appears to evaporate within the first few minutes of the pilot. The series is an example of what television can do well and ought to be doing more often.
An eye-opener, that’s also funny, real and compelling, the series is a heart-warming reminder that no matter who we are, we’re all born this way.
“Born This Way” airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday on A&E.