The show was groundbreaking for its time. Life Goes On premiered on September 12th, 1989 and lasted four seasons, with the last show airing on May 23rd, 1993. The story was about the life of a typical family. What set the show apart was that Corky, the oldest son, had Down Syndrome, and what made the show unique in my opinion, was that the actor that portrayed Corky, has Down Syndrome in real life. The actor’s name is Chris Burke.
I was in the middle of college when the show began, but I usually took a break from studying every week to watch it. What impressed me most was how the show tackled the rawness of living with a disability. Corky struggled with feeling misunderstood, wanting to be one of the crowd, and often with being left behind in terms of what his sister was doing socially.
I could definitely relate, and over time, most of my college friends could too. I had several conversations after the show was over about how Corky had many of the same challenges that other teenagers do. And that was probably the point that the show’s creators wanted to make. I was a big fan of Life Goes On.
A few years later, I had the opportunity to meet Chris Burke at a disability conference held in Lawrence. Being brand new to my job, I was nervous anyway, but the nerves increased significantly when I realized I had the opportunity to meet someone who I considered to be a pretty big star. It happened in the hallway of the conference center, during a break between sessions. Suddenly, I saw him as he was leaning against a wall and I made my way over. “Hello, Mr. Burke,” My wavering voice was brimming with formality. “My name is Lorraine Cannistra. It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”
He didn’t hesitate. “Hi, Lorraine. My name is Chris. I’m glad to meet you as well. Tell me a something about you.”
For the next few minutes, we had a wonderful conversation. I told him about my cerebral palsy, my new job, and my desire to challenge negative perceptions about disabilities. He asked questions about my family and where I attended college as well. He made me laugh as he autographed my conference program, and as I turned to leave, he said: “Hey Lorraine, congratulations on your new job.”
Over the next couple of days, I witnessed him having similar conversations with many other people and he was always a perfect gentleman. Even when he was in the middle of a crowd of people.
Chris Burke had a major impact on me the day that I met him. He reinforced the idea that all of us are similar and that it is beneficial to focus on what brings us together instead of what separates us.
Recently, I watched a video on CBS news about a trend in Iceland. The pregnant women there are encouraged to go through genetic counseling, and if it is determined that the fetus has Down Syndrome, women are given the option to abort. Most of them do so. A nurse in Iceland who assists in abortions who was interviewed said that she did not see what she was doing as murder. Instead, she was eliminating suffering for the baby with Down Syndrome and for the family. As you might imagine, people with Down Syndrome are starting to fight back. Helene Fien, a 21-year-old woman with Down Syndrome and Autism, this is what she said in her testimony to the United Nations:
“A test that checks for Down syndrome is being used to kill all babies with Down syndrome. In Iceland, Denmark, and China, not a single baby with Down syndrome has been born for seven years. Seven years! The goal is to eradicate Down syndrome in the future.” She urged the UN to stop administering the test. See the full testimony below.
What disturbed me as well is that, according to the same story on CBS news, 67% of babies with Down Syndrome are aborted in the United States as well.
I have often said that I believe in my soul that disability is a difference and not a weakness. If we start to think that it is okay to eradicate any disease or disability on the basis of a perception of suffering, where is it going to stop? Does somebody with a bad back not deserve to live because they might not be able to do the same things or have the same quality of life as someone who doesn’t have a bad back? This is a very dangerous precedent. I cringe to think about where it could lead.
I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of people with disabilities in society will tell you that they simply play the hand that they have been dealt in the best way that they can.
Because, even with a disability, life goes on.