More to offer than IQ: ‘You’re a person with a soul and a spirit’

Photo by Ben Sweet, Unsplash.

School’s out for the summer, and college seekers have probably already decided where they will attend, with the most desired institutions opening their doors to those with good grades and high IQs. 

Some time ago, I read an article by Amy Julia Becker, mother of a teen daughter with Down syndrome, that challenged our society’s — and my own — assumptions of value. In her essay, “When Merit Drives out Grace,” Becker points to the danger of societies that emphasize personal achievement. Meritocracies engender high rates of suicide, substance abuse, clinical anxiety and depression, she writes. Her daughter has taught her a new way of being that doesn’t prioritize achievement.

A speaker at a fundraiser for genetically impaired people said something else that got me thinking. “We often place the focus on ourselves,” he said, “by asking, ‘How can we help these children?’ But they also help us.”

Wanting to understand more about worth beyond achievement, I talked to two women: Becca Coblentz, a twin to Deborah Petersheim, who has Down syndrome; and Joyce Zimmerman, big sister of Regina Yoder, who also has Down syndrome. 

“What has your sister given you?” I asked them. Here’s what they said. 

Teaches care for others. As a child, Becca often entertained her twin by swinging with her on their double-seated swing, a chore she dreaded. But learning the joy of caring for others is what propelled her into nursing school as a young woman. Now she is thankful to live next door to Deborah, believing their relationship will help her own children to learn the gift of making space for everyone.

Teaches that everyone has something to give. Becca says her mother set the tone for Becca and her siblings to think of Deborah as just another member of the family, so much so that Becca never thought of Down syndrome as odd or a hardship. As the family watches Deborah’s sweet spirit and loving relationships, they have all learned that everyone has something to give, regardless of looks or talents.

Inspires family togetherness. When Joyce Zimmerman learned, at age 14, that her baby sister had Down syndrome, at first she wondered what her peers would think. But the whole family soon fell in love with baby Regina. They worked together at teaching her, and every development, from waving bye-bye to walking to reading, became a milestone to be celebrated. Becca says her family also became teammates while caring for Deborah. 

Accepts others. Both women talked about the acceptance their sisters give to others. “She’ll love you whether you’re covered in tattoos and piercings or whether you look like a very pious person,” Becca says. A high school student who used to ride the bus with Deborah wrote a letter telling the family how special she felt when Deborah laid her head on her shoulder. 

Perceives thoughts and emotions. People with Down syndrome often seem especially tuned in to other people. Joyce remembers Regina’s schoolteacher saying, “She can read personalities like the back of her hand.” Regina tells many stories to her favorite doll, inserting real-life circumstances and friends and family — with names changed — into her stories. “Just listen,” Joyce says, and you will discover she has everyone around her all figured out.”

Models trust. Joyce often struggles to trust God and is amazed by her sister’s faith. Regina handled the death of their mother with a simple belief that she was in heaven, and when the time was right, Regina would go, too. “When she prays, I often have to hold back the tears at her honesty,” Joyce says. “When she’s wrong, she tells God about it like he’s just simply a friend.”

Is poor in spirit. In a sermon once, Becca was struck by Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” She thought of Deborah. A person with Down syndrome doesn’t see whether you have a good career or financial or academic success, Becca says. To them, “you’re a person with a soul and a spirit, and that gives you value.” Their view of life is pure and untouched by pride. “They teach us so much simply because of who they are,” Becca says. 

Yes, people with Down syndrome, as well as those with other impairments, have gifts to offer. When we open our hearts to these beautiful people, we too can be recipients of their giving.  

Lucinda J. Kinsinger

Lucinda J. Kinsinger writes from Oakland, Md. The author of Anything But Simple: My Life as a Mennonite and Turtle Read More

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