Woman speaks out against campaign comparing people with Down syndrome to animals

People with Down syndrome and their parents are speaking out against a campaign to get people living with the syndrome added to the endangered species list.

Ben Tarr, a board member with the Canadian Down syndrome society, admits that the campaign is "edgy," but he is adamant that people living with the syndrome should be on the list compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Tarr could not provide statistics about the number of women in Canada who choose to terminate their pregnancies after receiving a positive test for Down syndrome.

But even in the absence of those numbers, he believes there's a move afoot to eradicate Down syndrome births.

"We're actually about to embark on a research project here with the University of Toronto where we'll be able to get some more information about the community here in Canada," Tarr told CBC Toronto.

"For us as an organization, it's about supporting people in the decision making that they need to go through. It's about providing information and ensuring they have the right information that they need for them."

'I don't like people comparing me as an animal, it's not fair.' - Francie Munoz

Convinced of a move to eradicate Down syndrome births, Tarr said to mark Down Syndrome Awareness week this year, the society is applying to be the first people on the endangered species list.

"So we've actually submitted an application to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and we're looking to be the first human species on their list," Tarr said.

"The reason for that is, really, we're looking to garner support. You know, when you look at the population size of those living with Down syndrome, what's endangered is actually the support that we get."

Grant Linton/CBC

But Francie Munoz, a woman with Down syndrome, disapproves of the campaign, saying it compares people with Down syndrome with animals.

She says what she wants is respect and to be able to live her life like anybody else.

"It doesn't matter who you are ... I don't like people comparing me as an animal, it's not fair," Munoz told CBC Toronto.

"Love us for who we are, not a character, not an animal."

Munoz was thrown into the spotlight in 2017 when two police officers were caught on dashcam footage mocking her during a traffic stop, describing her as disfigured and something less than a whole person.

The two officers were charged with offences under the Police Services Act.

Munoz's father, Carlos Munoz, says while he appreciates the message the Canadian Down Syndrome Society is trying to convey, he believes they are taking the wrong approach. 

"In my opinion, this type of campaign, personally as a father, I don't subscribe that much to it. I subscribe to the message itself, not the way ... it was presented," he told CBC Toronto.

'As cute as a polar bear can be, I don't think that anybody should be making that comparison in that sense.' - Carlos Munoz

"The parents I have talked to do not appreciate the fact that our children are being compared to animals. As cute as a polar bear can be, I don't think that anybody should be making that comparison in that sense."

He said while the campaign might be sparking conversation, it's mostly among people within the Down syndrome community, discussing whether they approve or disapprove.

Grant Linton/CBC

But Tarr said the society is moving ahead with the campaign to ensure they have a seat at the table to talk about "massively important issues" to the community.  

He pointed to issues such as employment, housing, and education.

"When you think about animals on [the endangered] list, we spend a lot of energy and time protecting and making sure those animals are able to thrive, and we want to do that for the Down syndrome community," Tarr said.

"We want to make sure that our community can thrive in life."

Tarr, who has a son with Down syndrome, says he worries about all the things that any parent would worry about — their child's happiness, their child's ability to learn, to grow, to develop into the character that they're going to become.

He said people outside of the Down syndrome community still have a lot of opportunity to help.

"When you think about all the employers out there, you think about people like government that deal with housing and funding; there's so much that this community of amazing people can offer and that's what we're really looking for."