'People see me as a leader,' man with Down syndrome says after election win

A Halifax man who made history by becoming the first town crier with Down syndrome has broken another barrier by winning an election to become president of a university student union.

Will Brewer, who is studying politics at Mount Saint Vincent University, won 62 per cent of the vote and was named interim president over the weekend. He and the student union believe he's the first person with Down syndrome to win such an election in Canada.

"I felt really great and really happy that people actually see me as a leader," Brewer told CBC News Monday. "I wanted to run to make the world a better place — even though it's a better place already."

Campaigning for office let him put to practice the lessons he's learning through his studies with the MountAbility program. The program at the Halifax university helps students with diverse abilities to study on campus.

"I was in an interview where somebody asked me, 'What's your disability?' I don't have one. I am Will — that's who I am. Down syndrome is an extra chromosome, which is also extra love," he said.

Brewer continues to serve as town crier for Olde Town Halifax, participating in Natal Day events and marching in the Halifax Pride parade. He also pursues artistic interests with the help of artist Renee Forrestall's Team Possibles.

Friend proud of 'great advocate'

Brewer's friend, Hannah Hicks, was thrilled with his success. "I think it's incredible," she said. "He is a great advocate and I'm very proud of him."

Hicks is a "happiness artist" and has held several shows in Halifax. "I love having Down syndrome," she said. "I think Down syndrome is fun, different and unique. It gives me more opportunities."

She thinks Brewer will inspire young people with Down syndrome and other differences. She always looked up to Temple Grandin. Grandin has autism and is a prominent expert on autism and animal welfare.

"She reads animals' minds and she rescues them. She's a very down-to-earth person and she's a role model for me," Hicks said.

Grandin gave a talk in Halifax in 2018 and stopped by Hicks's art show to meet her. "She talked to me and seemed very nice," Hicks said.

CBC

Hicks's mother said Brewer shows what happens when people focus on ability, not disability. "I think it's great that there are so many opportunities for people with Down syndrome. The sky's the limit," said Jill Hicks.

She's also a speech and language pathologist who works exclusively with people with Down syndrome. "It's important that you don't make assumptions on how much they understand, based on their ability to speak. Very often, they can understand much more than they are able to say," she said.

New wave of role models

Recent years have seen an explosion of role models for people with Down syndrome, she said. She mentioned Australian model Madeline Stuart, American swimmer Karen Gaffney and American Special Olympian and model Chelsea Werner, and Emmanuel Bishop, an American violinist who speaks several languages.

The Canadian Down Syndrome Society describes it as "a naturally occurring chromosomal arrangement that has always been part of the human condition." It says about 45,000 Canadians have Down syndrome.

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for American Heart Association

"We need to help them and encourage them to develop whatever they're interested in, whether it's athletics, music or art — whatever skills or interests they have," Jill Hicks said.

Brewer hopes to run for higher office when he finishes his studies, possibly for city council or a federal role. "Live big and raise to your full potential. Don't let anyone stop you. It's [about] what you think you can dream into reality," he said.

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