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Local association adds ‘M-word’ to the blacklist of insults

BEIRUT: It’s not the F-word or the N-word or the C-word. But one organization aims at making the M-word just as taboo.

“We’re just not going to say that word. We will say he is a person who has Down syndrome,” said Hana Abu Khadra Salem, education committee coordinator for the Lebanese Down Syndrome Association.

“Mongol” and “Mongolian” are common regional terms that refer to people born with Down syndrome or Trisomy 21, a genetic condition that causes delayed mental and social development as well as common physical traits such as a smaller head, slanted eyes and shorter height.

In part, it is due to this appearance that those with Down syndrome were referred to as looking like Mongolians.

The LDSA launched the campaign to eradicate the term from Lebanese vernacular on Down Syndrome Day on March 21 – a day that correlates in number, 3/21, to the genetics of the condition, three copies of chromosome 21. Down syndrome is also the single most common cause of birth defects, and becomes more probable in births by women over the age of 35.

LDSA’s campaign will run for a year and focus on marginalizing the use of the M-word.

British physician John Langdon Down, after whom the syndrome is named, described its common characteristics in 1866. Down related those with the condition as belonging to a lower race of humans, which he in turn compared in physical appearance and mental capacity to the Mongolian people of East Asia.

The longevity of Down syndrome’s comparison and the M-word has reinforced stereotypes that those with Down syndrome are incapable of leading normal, fulfilling and autonomous lives. “And which is just as insulting to Mongols, too,” Salem said.

Local language problems don’t stop with the word Mongol either. The condition is sometimes referred to in Arabic as “marad,” literally meaning a sickness or ailment.

Salem pointed out that this too is flawed as those with Down syndrome are not sick and cannot be cured; it was just the way they were born.

The campaign has several phases, each corresponding to a season as a way to underscore the importance of change, Salem said.

The LDSA will enter schools in September and give educational lessons on the condition. They are also teaming up with the Beirut Municipality to establish a small garden to honor those with Down syndrome.

“It will have all different kinds of flowers for diversity to show just how people are diverse, so is nature,” Salem said.

The stereotypes that go hand-in-hand with the M-word have greater consequences than simply insulting those with the condition.

Parents who underestimate children with Down syndrome can severely exacerbate their slowed development the same way hiding or depriving a child without the condition would likewise stunt them.

In July, a craft bazaar by one of the local service providers to the handicapped revealed just how capable men and women with Down syndrome are. They had woven professional-quality baskets, designed mosaic tiling, crafted jewelry, and many were fluent in both English and Arabic.

Salem said this is only just a small part of what they are capable of doing.

On a recent trip to Turkey, Salem watched people with Down syndrome play violin, flute and piano with a professional orchestra and her own daughter performed a dance.

In other parts of the world, common occupations include restaurant waiters, hospital assistants, office mailmen and janitors. “Some children have amazed us,” she said. “There’s a lot of ignorance about them and what they can do.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 29, 2013, on page 2.

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