It’s a fantastic, made-for-TV, feel-good story. Jimmy Jenson, a 48-year old man with Down syndrome, completed his second marathon on Sunday in New York City. I have never run farther than four miles. This guy made it 26.2 miles. It’s a tremendous accomplishment in and of itself, but Jenson’s story is inspirational for many reasons. For one, it counters many of the assumptions about people with Down syndrome. Jenson has demonstrated his physical ability and perseverance, and his story also suggests that lack of encouragement/access to physical fitness regimens might be one reason for obesity among individuals with Down syndrome. Jenson lost 69 pounds over the course of the past ten years after he took up running.
For another, Jenson trained for the race with his friend Jennifer Davis, who he met through the Best Buddies Program. This story demonstrates the power of inclusion to transform lives in a reciprocal way. Together they ran the 26.2 miles in eight hours. As they ran, Jenson encouraged many others along the way. Davis says of their relationship:
“I was able to help Jimmy become more active, get in the community, lose weight, and tie his shoes, but he taught me about enjoying life, dancing and singing like no one is watching, and that a hug and a hot cocoa can solve almost anything.”
Jenson lost weight, made friends, became an encouragement to many, and has spent this week celebrating his accomplishment via national media.
His story inspires me. And it makes me very sad, because across the globe people believe that a life like his is not possible for their child.
Jenson’s story came to my attention amidst a selection of current stories about Down syndrome in the news. The other one that caught my eye today was from the Taipei Times, which begins its article Down syndrome live births reduced with these words:
The Down syndrome birth rate has significantly decreased with the introduction of screening tests from 22.28 per 100,000 live births in 2001 to 7.79 in 2010, the Taiwan Society of Perinatology said yesterday, urging all pregnant women to undertake the recommended tests.
In nine years, due to advanced prenatal screening tests, the birth rate of babies with Down syndrome has been reduced in Taiwan by seventy percent. Later on in the article, what’s implied in the beginning is written outright. This change is called “positive.” Notice that there’s no mention of abortion. It moves from screening to a reduced birth rate without any mention of the intermediary step of snuffing out a life. Moreover, it moves there without mentioning that the lives snuffed out had the prospect of families, of friendship, of running 5ks and marathons, of speaking encouraging words to others, of living decent, ordinary, good lives.
Jimmy Jenson made headlines this week, but his life is not as exceptional as it might seem. I don’t mean to belittle his significant accomplishments, but I do mean to suggest that the reason this story (and others like it–the homecoming kings and queens with Down syndrome, the kid who shot the 3-pointer or scored the touchdown) should encourage us is not their exceptional quality. Rather, it is because their accomplishments demonstrate the ordinary lives–filled with celebration and challenges–possible for all people with three copies of chromosome 21. Most people with Down syndrome (and most people without it) won’t be running marathons any time soon. But most will demonstrate their capacity for love and joy and friendship if given the chance.
These ordinary good lives are reason to celebrate. And the fact that there are fewer and fewer around the globe is reason to grieve.