I got a text message from my friend Brittany the other day.
It was purely emojis: hearts, stars and flowers. These are my favorite because they feel like her. Brittany has Down Syndrome.
When I’m with her, I talk less and laugh more. We hold hands, hug and always, always find time to sing.
I met Brittany Schiavone two years ago, when she was 25 years old and had started a nonprofit organization called Brittany’s Baskets of Hope. Her mission was—and is—to spread support, resources and, of course, love to families that have newly welcomed a child with Down Syndrome into their lives.
Brittany’s life is her message. Every day, she shares photos of her life with her 400-odd followers on Facebook: drinks and appetizers on a Friday night with friends, home-cooking for Taco Tuesday, spinach-mango-banana smoothies as she learns to lead a healthy and vibrant life, photos of her at work, in a play, in a meeting or going to see a Broadway show.
No, she hasn’t let Down Syndrome stop her.
I remember first meeting her and thinking to myself, “How many 25-year-olds are living their purpose, or even know what it is?” And there she was refusing to let anyone shrink or diminish her.
Brittany has accomplished a lot in her young life. She graduated high school, attended three proms where she even had a few dances with a typical, handsome young man who befriended her and made her night. She strutted her stuff at two PTA Fashion Shows and walked the runway with that same young man and her high school principal. Her school photography projects traveled all the way to the state-level in competition. She danced, channeled her inner Chita Rivera in local theater productions, and flipped, galloped and swam as a Special Olympics athlete. And now she’s headed to college this fall for her first university-style class designed for students with special needs.
This woman’s got impact.
But I’m not sharing her story here because I think she’s amazing (though she is). I’m not doing it because she’s exceptional—in fact, quite the opposite. Brittany is not an exception. She’s one of many in a sea of individuals with Down Syndrome who are making their mark on the world.
I’m not pointing at one girl and saying, “Look, she’s exceeding the odds.” I’m saying, “Look what she can do—and she’s not alone!” Brittany is one of many individuals with special needs in every town, every city, across nations who is doing her thing with purpose and passion and potency. She has always insisted that all girls and all boys of all abilities “can do anything,” and she knows because she has.
No matter how we walk, how we talk, how we look or how we perceive the world, we should not be dismissed. Count us all in.
For everyone who has ever used the r-word (retarded) or dismissed someone based on difference, this is our chance to stand up and do better. Because there are real people behind those words and they deserve never to be reduced by hurtful language. They deserve never to be reduced. Period.
In fact, what I am most grateful for when I think of Brittany is just how real and supportive and fulfilling she is as a friend. I’m grateful for her friendship. In moments when I’ve struggled to find my groove, Brittany has been there—texting me hearts, stars and flowers, telling me she loves me and reminding me that, together, we make a great team.
She has always accepted me as I am. She tries every kale-cucumber juice concoction I come up with, embraces her power animal when I bring her along to meditations as my plus one, and always giggles and ad-libs Derek Hough’s name for me when we sing together in the car and Meghan Trainor belts out, “Dear future husband…”
The beauty of meeting Brittany is that now I know for sure that we all deserve to be seen, heard and loved. That no matter who we are, we have worth. And that, no matter how we were born, we all have purpose.
Our greatest strength is in being ourselves, together. Together, we all shine.
Author: Ashley Asti
Images: courtesy of the author
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren