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10 Of The Most Successful People With Down Syndrome

by Simon Griffin
fact checked by Jamie Frater

It’s no secret that people with Down Syndrome are not always fully embraced by society. Even in the wealthiest, most advanced parts of the world, prejudice of this kind continues to persist, and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. But wherever there is prejudice, there are those who stand up against it, and the following are just 10 examples of people who have torn down barriers and broken glass ceilings for people with Down Syndrome all over the world.

See Also: 10 Epic Tales Of Survival Against All Odds

10 Ángela Bachiller—Politician

Ángela Bachiller kicked off her political career in 2011, when she began working at City Hall in the Spanish city of Valladolid. A member of the People’s Party, Bachiller spent over two years working as an administrative assistant in City Hall, before standing for election in 2011. Although Bachiller did not win a seat in that election, placing 18th for 17 available posts, she assumed office two years later when a corruption scandal forced Jesús García Galván to step down.

While some may attempt to downplay Bachiller’s success by pointing out that she didn’t win the election outright, it should also be noted that she very well may have, if people with Down Syndrome were allowed to vote in Spain. While there is no outright ban on people with intellectual disabilities voting, Spanish courts usually declare people with Down Syndrome as “incapacitated”. Intended to protect them from fraud and exploitation, such a ruling also revokes their right to vote, making it all the more impressive that Bachiller managed to hold a position when she couldn’t even vote for herself.[1]

9Collette Divitto—Entrepreneur

Even without laws that explicitly forbid them from fully integrating into society, people with Down Syndrome consistently face an uphill battle in trying to do so. Collette Divitto discovered just how true this is when, despite finishing a 3 year cooking course at Clemson University in just two years, job interview after job interview was met with nothing but polite rejection.

Hellbent on entering the workforce, Collette took her most popular recipe, “The Amazing Cookie”, and founded Collettey’s Cookies. Initially working with a single grocery store, Collette gradually built up her client base, raising her profile with media appearances on CNN, MSNBC, CBS, GMA, BBC, and more, ultimately leading to a partnership with Lays Potato Chips. Collette now employs 13 people, and hopes to use her platform to reduce unemployment and poverty levels among people with disabilities.[2]

8Jamie Brewer—Actor

Probably the most-famous person on this list, Jamie Brewer is an actor that many of you will recognise from her prominent and recurring roles in the American Horror Story series. Having worked in theatre for over a decade, Brewer skyrocketed to international fame when she made her TV debut portraying Adelaide “Addy” Langdon in the pilot of the hit horror show, and has been a regular fixture ever since.

In an interview conducted shortly after season one aired, Brewer said “the most difficult part of playing Adelaide is learning how to portray someone who isn’t always viewed acceptable to her mother and society. This is a new challenge for me”.

Since she started on the show, Brewer has worked on a number of TV shows & films, and is currently slated to play Princess Aurora (a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty) in a film series that takes old fairytales and gives a more active role to the leading ladies.[3]

7Marte Wexelsen Goksøyr—Playwright

Born in Norway in 1982, Marte Wexelsen Goksøyr is a public speaker and disability activist, but she is most well-known for her work as a writer—more specifically, a playwright. Her most famous work is her interpretation of Cinderella, which is based on her own life, performed at one of Oslo’s most prestigious theatres, and features live music from the naughties pop band Hellogoodbye.

Goksøyr’s work made her the first woman to win The Bjørnson Prize from the Norwegian Academy of Literature and Freedom of Expression, and her version of Cinderella was even used as the basis of a scientific study that examined the differences in attitudes towards disabled actors between adults and children.[4]

6 Judith Scott—Sculptor

Judith Scott (1943-2005) had exactly the kind of childhood you would expect from someone who became a world renowned artist. Judith’s parents chose not to acknowledge her condition, which was compounded by the fact that she had gone deaf, unbeknownst to anyone in her life. At seven years old, Judith’s twin sister Joyce woke up to find Judith had been taken to a care home, where her undiagnosed deafness meant she failed to qualify for any sort of classes at all.

Forbidden by their mother to visit Judith, Joyce spent much of her life working with children in need until, after a 35 year battle, she became Judith’s guardian and moved her to another institution. For years, Judith took almost no interest in any of the creative activities available there, until the day a guest teacher came in to give a class on fiber art.

Judith immediately took the the art form, taking all sorts of objects and wrapping them in threads and yarn. It was clear that her work went well beyond pure aesthetics, with the director of the institute saying that Judith was “learning to speak”. Much of her work clearly reflects the loneliness & isolation she experienced in childhood, with twins being a major theme as well.

After 10 years, Judith was given her first exhibition which, coupled with a book about her work, caught the attention and acclaim of the international art community. She soon became the subject of 4 documentaries in three languages, and to this day has permanent exhibitions in 12 museums across 6 countries.[5]

5Madeline Stuart—Supermodel

Madeline Stuart is a professional supermodel who was born in Australia in 1996. After attending a Brisbane fashion show in 2014, Stuart decided she wanted to be a model and began training. The following year, her mother launched an online campaign, which quickly gathered steam, resulting in Stuart signing 2 contracts in one week.

Stuart’s career didn’t stop there, and she quickly racked up quite the collection of accolades, such as walking the catwalk in New York Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week, London Fashion Week, and various other weeks and shows around the world. Stuart has also been profiled in both Vogue & Forbes, and has completed the Special Olympics triathlon three times.[6]

4Pablo Pineda—DipT BA

Pablo Pineda is an actor and educator most well-known for being the first European with Down Syndrome to obtain a university degree, having completed both a Diploma in Teaching and a BA in Educational Psychology. In 2009, he won the Silver Shell Award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival for his role in Yo Tambien, a film about a university graduate with Down Syndrome. Despite the name, the Silver Shell award is actually the top acting prize at the festival, which is one of only 14 category A film festivals in the world. Upon returning to his native Malaga, Pineda was also presented with the Shield of the City by the local Mayor.

Although he still acts, Pineda wants to build a career in education, and is currently working on implementing an international strategy to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Pineda is a regular guest speaker at universities across the world, has written multiple books, and has a TedTalk available to watch online.[7]

3 Sujeet Desai—Musician

Sujeet Desai is a musician from Buffalo, New York who graduated from high school with a 4.3 GPA before graduating from Berkshire Hills Music Academy two years later. All in all, Desai can play seven instruments: Piano, violin, drums, Bb clarinet, Bass clarinet, trumpet, and saxophone. Two documentaries have been made about his accomplishments, and he has received major media attention throughout the years, featuring on shows such as The View, 20/20, The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as in the Wall Street Journal & New York Times. His greatest accomplishment so far was his 2015 performance at Carnegie Hall, for which he received a standing ovation.

Needless to say, Desai has a Pantheon of awards to his name, including a number of Olympic medals. That, along with his musical ability, may be why he was chosen to give a solo performance at the opening ceremony of the 2009 Winter Special Olympics. He currently lives in New York with his wife Carolyn, and is working towards earning a second performance at Carnegie Hall.[8]

2 Karen Gaffney—Athlete

In 1977, Jim Gaffney held his 9 month old daughter Karen, and blew air in her face. Once her lips were closed, he placed her briefly underwater, in the hopes that he could gradually improve her breathing and muscle tone. This unusual idea proved to be a bit of a Moana moment for Karen, who has gone on to enjoy an incredibly successful career as a swimmer.

In addition to winning two gold medals in the Special Olympics, Karen was the first person with Down Syndrome to complete the English Channel relay race, but even then her career was just getting started. Since crossing the channel, she has also conquered Boston Harbor, San Francisco bay (16 times and counting), Lake Champlain, Dun Laoghaire Harbor, and the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. In 2007, she was the focus of the Documentary Crossing Tahoe: A Swimmer’s Dream.[9]

1 Isabella Springmuhl Tejada—Designer

From an early age, Isabella Springmuhl Tejada followed in the footsteps of her grandmother, who was also a designer. As a child, Isabella would create clothes for her dolls, but play eventually turned into work when she enrolled in a fashion course, where she began working on clothes inspired by Guatemalan culture, as well as designs aimed specifically at people with Down Syndrome.

Springmuhl had her first big showcase in 2015, where she sold her complete collection. The success of her show garnered international attention, and a second exhibit was quickly set up in Panama. Her momentum continued to build, and in 2016 her designs were shown at London Fashion Week, which was followed by another exhibit in Rome. All of this landed her a spot in the BBC’s 100 Women list, an annual collection of the most inspirational and influential women in the world, alongside the likes of Alicia Keys, Simone Biles, and Zoleka Mandela.[10]

About The Author: Simon has entered his final lap of being a 20-something year old, but still loves Irish stereotypes and potatoes.

fact checked by Jamie Frater