Chioma Uzoigwe wrote this article.
Old stereotypes die hard. These four simple words reflect one of the truest aspects of human nature. It is difficult to erase in peoples’ minds characteristics that are socially proven, per se, to be true of a particular group of individuals. It is even more difficult for people to rid themselves of such ideas when they do not belong to the group they stereotype. Public perception changers, however, have the power to reverse common incorrect views. This paper will show that to be a successful public perception changer an individual must overcome adversity to prove himself as exceptional within the stereotyped group to which he belongs. This paper will additionally show that the power of a public perception changer lies even more greatly in his ability to supercede what mainstream society can do. One such public perception changer is Chris Burke, the star of the hit television show “Life Goes On” (1989-1993). In his lifetime, Chris changed the way the world viewed people with disabilities and broke ground as the first successful actor with Down syndrome to appear in a television series.
We have encountered several public perception changers in our lifetime such as Helen Keller, Magic Johnson and Ryan White, to name several. Each of these individuals had a disability or illness but persevered to live fruitful lives. Chris Burke is no exception. He was born on August 26, 1965. Doctors diagnosed him with having Down syndrome which at the time was called “mongolism,” after modeling the facial features of those with the disorder after the features of the Asian people of Mongolia. The term was certainly derogatory, just as GRID was the former AIDS. At the time of Chris’ diagnosis, the recommendation for parents that gave birth to babies with Down syndrome was to send the babies to institutions and forget they were ever born. Eventually the awful conditions of neglect and an inability to thrive for those infants led to their inevitable fate–death. Chris’ parents were caring and loving people, with three older teenage children. Against doctors’ wishes, Chris’ parents decided to take him home and do the best they could to raise a child that no one thought would ever walk or talk or function normally in society.
The public perception of individuals with Down syndrome is that they are unintelligent, incapacitated and incapable of social function. In 1968, Joseph Fletcher, a respected theologian advocated for immediate euthanasia for all infants born with Down syndrome (Burke & McDaniel 2001). The article, published in The Atlantic Monthly, stated that people with Down syndrome had “no meaningful quality of life, so they should be put to death legally upon birth to protect society and individuals from the trauma [and] parents…should have no guilt about placing an infant in an institution and hoping for an early death because “‘a Down is not a person'” (Burke & McDaniel 2001). Burke also wrote in his autobiography “A Special Kind of Hero” that the public associated Down syndrome with something the mother did during pregnancy and as a result, those children were a great sense of shame to a family. Many of the children were secluded from the world, locked in attics and basements. This situation is similar to Oliver Sacks’ description of Jose the autist artist, who was reportedly a “‘fulltime'” epileptic, autistic, …aphasic, retarded child” and whose parents kept him in the cellar of their home (Sacks 1998).
Still sadder about these perceptions was that even the most intelligent among society could not disassociate reality from stereotype (Allen 2004). For example, despite his diagnosis, Chris did not appear to exhibit signs of severe retardation, “the doctors were all mixed up about Chris because he was so healthy. They kept looking for things that could be wrong with him” (Burke & McDaniel 2001). Therefore, despite Chris being a healthy baby boy other than his diagnosis, medial personnel could not divorce his disposition from his disorder and they biased their treatment towards him by actively seeking for anything wrong with him.
While the mental detriment of people with Down syndrome is irreversible, early education and stimulation can enhance the capabilities they were born with; “only a small percentage of people with Down syndrome are severely retarded, requiring intensive, lifelong care with their meals, exercise, and personal hygiene in order to survive” (Burke & McDaniel 2001). These truths appear to be facts that not many people know. Chris was fortunate to be brought up in a loving family that did not give up on him because of his disorder, which the remainder of this paper will demonstrate.
Despite the criticism they received from health professionals, the Burkes treated Chris like a normal child. He took slightly longer to exhibit the milestone developments of normal children, but other than that he was a healthy baby. Chris was also a fast learner; his siblings spent quality time reading with him, teaching him to recognize colors, numbers and words. Burke and McDaniel (2001) wrote, “without knowing it, the Burkes were performing a primitive version of what is now called “early intervention.” In the early 1980s, educators found that a stimulating program of exercises and games could significantly spur development of muscle tone and the senses of touch, sight, and hearing in children with Down syndrome.”
The Burkes also feared for Chris’ education because at the time, New York City public schools did not mainstream children with disabilities and there were no quality private schools for children with disabilities in New York City that met the Burkes’ expectations for Chris. When Chris was three, his mother took him to speech therapy classes (people with Down syndrome have a smaller mouth cavity and do not have strong muscle tone in the tongue; as a result, they have trouble with certain combinations of consonant pronunciations (Alton
1998)); ultimately the Burkes discovered boarding schools for Chris where he flourished in his talents.
School instructors immediately picked up on how much Chris differed from the other children who were often nonverbal and nonresponsive. Chris, on the other hand, was gregarious in nature and had more practical skills than the other children. He was not among the high functioning children, but he scored just above medium. It was also at this time that Chris began to exhibit his love for acting. He had a great capacity to get attention from people. He loved to perform; he spent time writing skits and wowed his audience with his performances. His outgoing personality also won the hearts of many he encountered and he made a large number of friends. Chris also demonstrated great concern for helping people, particularly those that could not help themselves. School instructors remarked that it was an unusual characteristic of people with Down syndrome and they credited the Burkes for their dedication to raising Chris to be as normal as possible.
Chris’ fascination with acting grew obsessive as he got older but his family and friends remained doubtful about his dream and constantly reminded him about the difficulties in pursuing an acting career because he had Down syndrome. The Burke family was at the point of frustration with Chris. Yet, Chris persisted and took everyone’s doubts with a grain of salt and a tablespoon of patience. He even began taking evening classes in acting in Manhattan after his day job as a volunteer at P.S. 138.
Chris’ first big break happened in 1987 when he auditioned for a part in Michael Braverman’s script for a television series pilot titled Desperate. Chris won the role, hands down. His family and friends were in disbelief at his triumph in proving their doubts wrong. Meg Foster was one of the actresses Chris worked with for the pilot and she was as equally amazed with Chris as the people he impacted in his life; she stated, “there’s a joy and love of life and being in the moment which is an actor’s goal. Chris doesn’t have to work for that. He is the moment. He is the actor” (Burke and McDaniel 2001).
Despite the great opportunity Chris’ mother still remained skeptical, knowing that there was no certainty in ABC picking up the pilot. Chris’s coworkers at P.S. 138 felt the same way where the comments were “‘there was good reaction around here to the ‘Desperate’ part but we just thought it would be a fleeting thing'” and “‘it’s a once in a lifetime thing. He’ll never get this. It’s not that we didn’t have faith in him. It just seemed implausible. At the time, you never saw handicapped actors on television…” (Burke and McDaniel 2001). Unfortunately, ABC decided not to produce Desperate as a series but Chris took the disappointment well, “‘I was worried that would be it, that I wouldn’t have another part. I pushed myself; I worked hard. I tried to maybe get on other shows'” (Burke and McDaniel 2001).
Once again, Chris’ perseverance paid off. At the recommendation of a friend Chris sent his tape to Abrams Artists, an acting agency, and met with members of the agency soon after. Claudia Black, one of the agents, recalled that everyone was flabbergasted, “‘He was all dressed up, and he sat down and crossed his legs and started to tell us about himself. We just sat there with our mouths open. He wasn’t like a child or teenager; he was a very determined young man. We saw every aspect of his personality in that first meeting. You could tell when things were tender with him, especially when he talked about the kids he worked with. We could see how interested and excited he was to meet someone who could possibly get him into this field…'” (Burke and McDaniel 2001).
After the meeting, the agents realized that Chris had much more to offer than the talent he displayed on the tape of Desperate. Unbeknownst to Chris, in August of 1987 Chad Hoffman, ABC’s vice-president of dramatic series development, was meeting with Michael Braverman to create a television series built around Chris. Michael then came up with the family show we know today that was “Life Goes On,” a series about a working class family and their struggles raising a child with Down syndrome.
Chris’ next big break happened in 1988 when he landed the role of Charles “Corky” Thatcher. None of the people that worked on the set of “Life Goes On,” had ever worked with a person with Down syndrome. Some expressed uncertainty about whether Chris actually had Down syndrome, a view that confirmed their ignorance about people with the disorder. Paul Wolff was responsible for leading group meetings with teenagers with Down syndrome to understand what their life experiences were in helping to write the script. He commented, “these meetings changed the way we wanted to write the show. Before, for all of us, people with Down syndrome were those people you would see walking down the street and you avoided their look. After being with Chris and the groups, we began to see how our attitudes were based on fear” (Burke and McDaniel 2001). This is a remarkable statement, which shows Chris’ power to break barriers in dissipating the negative perceptions of people with Down syndrome.
Millions of fans caught on to Chris as “Corky” on television. The Burkes hardly had time to absorb the enormity of Chris’ fame. After the first show aired, the Burkes received so much fan mail they found it impossible to respond to every letter in a timely fashion. Chris became a heartthrob among teenage girls with Down syndrome, often getting mobbed in public places. Chris inspired people all over the world to view people with Down syndrome in a positive light. People saw an articulate teenager who had feelings and goals and just happened to have Down syndrome, rather than a person born abnormal who happened to have feelings and goals. Chris was invited to speak at schools and conferences and became the poster person advocating for equal treatment of people with disabilities. Chris was even invited to the White House where former president Bush invited him to make a public service announcement to encourage appreciation of the abilities of people with Down syndrome. To add to Chris’ impact, he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for best supporting actor in a dramatic television series in 1989 (Milligan 2004). That same year he won the award of best television actor by the Academy of Family Films and Family Television, the “Inspiration to Youth Award” from Youth in Film and the St. Genesius Medal in 1990 for outstanding achievement in the entertainment business. He was also recognized by the Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of ten outstanding young Americans between the ages of 21 and 39. “Life Goes On” was even syndicated in over 30 countries. It was clear that Chris made history, which was simply put by Craig Safan, the composer of the show, “Life Goes On” has more power to change people’s perceptions of Down syndrome and mental retardation than any movie or documentary” (Burke and McDaniel 2001). The show remained successful for four years; its final season aired in 1993.
Chris’ success was clearly unique. He was a successful public perception changer because he overcame adversity to prove himself as exceptional not only within the stereotyped group to which be belonged but within society as a whole. He won the world over with his talent and personality and changed the world’s perception of people with disabilities. Like Ryan White, he saw himself as a normal person, saying that having Down syndrome is merely a characteristic, just as “some people have brown hair” (Burke and McDaniel 2001). Chris even jovially refers to his disorder as “Up syndrome.” Today, Chris remains active in advocating for people with disabilities, where he serves as a goodwill ambassador for the National Down Syndrome Society and editor-in-chief of its quarterly magazine (Horsburgh, et al. 2001).
After a few years of filming “Life Goes On” Chris returned to visit P.S. 138 where he worked before he became a star. An encounter between Chris and Pat Mulholland, the assistant principal, sensitively and eloquently sums up Chris’ importance as a public perception changer,
Pat Mulholland gave Chris a big hug and reminded him of something she had said when she first asked him if he wanted to be the elevator operator. “I had told him, ‘Chris, I want you to be my Helen Keller.’ Because of Helen Keller, the American Foundation for the Blind has so much power, and it is the most endowed of all the organizations for people with handicapping conditions. She put a face on the condition; she made people understand her handicap. And you can always use the story of Helen Keller as something to strive for. But we didn’t have anyone like that, until Chris. Our kids are unable to advocate for themselves, and now we finally had someone to cheerlead for us. I told him, ‘Chris you’ve really and truly done it. You are my Helen Keller'” (Burke and McDaniel 2001).
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