Down’s syndrome is a physical and learning disability that is estimated to affect 47,000 people in the UK. Despite the many challenges and barriers that the condition can bring, particularly when it comes to people’s misconceptions, people with Down’s syndrome can and do live successful and fulfilling lives.
Here, our writer Emma Shepherd shares 10 famous and successful people with the condition from the world of TV, film, art, fashion and business – a couple of whom Emma was lucky enough to have met and worked with.
What is Down’s syndrome?
Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes – one half is given to us by our mother and the other half by our father. They determine what we look like – our gender, eye and hair colour, height and so on. A person with Down’s syndrome has an additional full or partial copy of chromosome 21.
There are three types of Down’s syndrome. They range in severity but the difference can’t be distinguished without looking at the chromosome itself with a microscope.
There are certain physical characteristics that identify a person as having Down’s syndrome, such as the shape of their eyes, an enlarged tongue, shorter stature, hands and feet, as well as a learning disability and/or heart and gastrointestinal disorders.
Read on to check out these 10 talented individuals with Down’s syndrome.
Leon Harrop and Sarah Gordy
We start with the stars of BBC’s Ralph and Katie (pictured above), a story of two newlyweds who have Down’s syndrome as they go about their day-to-day lives. A lovely, light-hearted comedy-drama that concentrates on the people and not the fact that they are disabled.
Not only do the lead members of the cast have disabilities, but so do some of the trainee writers and production crew. In fact, ALL cast and crew were diverse, which has led to it being one of the most accessible, ground-breaking programmes on TV.
Leon Harrop played Ralph in all three series of The A Word before the spin-off show Ralph & Katie. He also had the role of Albie in the Sky comedy-drama Brassle, and cameo roles in Casualty, Moving On and No Offence.
Sarah Gordy, who plays Katie, has also appeared in other TV shows, including Call the Midwife and Lady Pamela Holland in Upstairs Downstairs.
In addition, Sarah was the first woman with Down’s syndrome to be given an MBE in 2018 and the first person with Down’s syndrome to be given an honorary degree from Kent University. She is also an Ambassador for the Down’s Syndrome Association.
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Ellie Goldstein is a 20-year-old model with Down’s syndrome. Ellie has made history by being the first model with Down’s syndrome to feature in huge campaigns with brands such as Gucci Beauty and Adidas.
She has also appeared on the covers of Glamour, Elle, Mission and Euphoria.
As well as being a model, Ellie is a dancer and performer and has worked in commercials, TV, fashion campaigns and catwalks.
Follow Ellie Goldstein on Instagram.
Tazia Fawley (Taz), from Somerset, is a painter who mainly paints seascapes and landscapes.
In 2013, Taz spent six months painting a picture that showed Rupert the Bear standing on Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol watching hot-air balloons float past.
The painting was offered to the now Prince and Princess of Wales by the Heart and Sold charity, which promotes artists with Down’s syndrome.
It was given as a gift to the then-expecting couple and Taz was delighted to find out that they hung it in Prince George’s nursery as they loved the picture so much.
Taz has described herself as an artist who happens to have Down’s syndrome.
Her mum said: “It was a lovely thing that they did. Since Taz has had this publicity, I’ve [received] loads of emails from people, usually parents with Down’s children, saying how wonderful Taz is and what kind of a role model she is.
In England, there always has been a stigma attached to Down’s syndrome, and now that is washed away by the fact that the Duke and Duchess have accepted that painting. For this to happen, it’s kind of turned that negativity around.”
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Actor Liam Bairstow, who I was lucky enough to meet at a conference a few years ago, made history as the first actor with Down’s syndrome to feature in Coronation Street.
He came onto the cobbles in 2015 playing Alex Warner, nephew of Cathy Matthews, and worked in Roy’s café.
He was spotted at a workshop called ‘Breaking Through’ after complaints that there were not enough disabled actors being offered auditions for TV.
Producer Stuart Blackburn announced the show was casting its first actor with Down’s syndrome and said: “It’s not some politically correct thing. We actually found there [is] a really great actor with a wonderful sense of timing. The cast has been really enjoying working with him.”
Liam, as an Ambassador of Mencap, said that “having Down’s syndrome has never held me back and that everyone should follow their dreams”.
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Continuing with the fashion world, Beth Matthews, from Wales, was inspired to model after seeing Ellie Goldstein make her mark. Beth is signed up with Zebedee, the same model agency as Ellie – an agency that embodies diversity.
Beth has appeared in Italian Vogue and Brazil’s Marie Claire.
Beth’s mother, Fiona, has said that she has watched her daughter grow in confidence as soon as she started her first shoot.
She said: “The inclusion revolution is happening, finally, and I’m very pleased that my daughter is going to be a part of it”.
Follow Beth Matthews on Instagram.
Kenny Cridge, who I personally knew when I lived in Somerset, was the oldest living person with Down’s syndrome and was added to the Guinness Book of Records in 2008.
Sadly, he passed away in 2018 at the age of 79, but he was such a lovely man and has an interesting story to tell.
Born in 1939, he was one of a pair of twins. No one knew that his mother Iris was carrying twins and when he was born it was thought that he was stillborn. Against the odds, and only given a life expectancy of 12 years, Kenny went on to defy doctors.
He was a very affectionate person and always had a harmonica in his pocket and a smile for everyone. In his youth, he used to ride in his father’s sidecar as they went from one pub to the next. Kenny is still fondly remembered in his old village in Norton-Sub-Hamdon.
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Michael Beynon is an entrepreneur with an unusual product – he makes and sells Black Welsh Cakes.
Michael used to work in a café in Ammanford, Carmarthenshire, which is a small mining town. Having learned that miners used to take their food down the pit, including carrying Welsh cakes in their pockets, he wondered whether their food turned black.
Inspired by this idea, as a one-off, he made a black Welsh cake. However, they proved to be so popular that he started his own business called Coalpit Welsh Cakes in 2018 and has since employed some of his friends.
During Covid, he started selling his cakes online and making different flavours, such as white chocolate and raspberry. He even partnered up with a distillery to make a welsh cake flavoured gin.
If you want to know what makes the welsh cakes black, then you will have to keep guessing as it is top secret. What I do know is that they are not made from coal dust!
If you want to try some of these welsh cakes for yourself, then you can buy them at COALPIT Welsh Cakes.
Isabella Springmuhl Tejada
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Isabella Springmuhl Tejada is one of Guatemala’s most famous fashion designers and uses vibrant and traditional fabrics from Guatemala. She always had an interest in fashion and used to make clothes for her dolls as a young girl.
Isabella was turned down by a university to study fashion because of her Down’s syndrome, so her mother took her to a sewing school for women where she found a passion for digital pattern making.
This process involves her drawing the design using specific software that then creates a 3D pattern. These are sent to an atelier workshop to be made into the item of clothing and then finally embroidered.
Isabella says: “I wish that every garment I so lovingly work on warms the dreams of other youngsters who have different abilities – we can do it!”
She designs clothes for women with Down’s syndrome as she used to find it difficult to find clothes for her body shape and to suit her physical characteristics. She also designs bags, ponchos and jackets.
In 2016, she was the first person with Down’s syndrome to show her collection at London Fashion Week, and in the same year, the BBC added her to the 100 Top Most Influential And Inspirational Women.
You can follow Isabella on Instagram where you can see a range of her clothing designs.
Steven Brandon is an actor with Down’s syndrome who starred as Luke in the film My Feral Heart in 2016. The British-made film is about Luke’s move to a care home after the death of his mother and the unlikely friendship he strikes up.
Steven was discovered whilst at the Mushroom Theatre company in Essex by Jane Gull, who directed the film.
Steven says that he likes to meet people, jet ski, go to the cinema and horse riding, but his speciality is eating!
Interviews with celebrities who have Down’s syndrome
Here at Disability Horizons, we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing several celebrities who have Down’s syndrome:
- Sam Barnard – actor
- James Martin – actor
- Madeline Stuart – model and activist
- George Webster – CBeebies presenter
Down’s Syndrome Act guidance consultation
There is an open consultation asking people with Down’s syndrome, their families, carers and organisations to share their views on making the statutory guidance for the Down’s Syndrome Act, which became law in April 2022.
The act represents a significant opportunity to improve the lives of people with Down’s syndrome.
The consultation closes on Tuesday 8th November 2022. Have your say on the Down Syndrome Act 2022 guidance: call for evidence Government page, where you’ll find access to easy read and BSL formats too.
By Emma Shepherd
Aids and Adaptations for People with Down’s Syndrome
Welcome to this guide on useful equipment and technology for people with Down’s syndrome. Assistive tools can make a big difference in daily life and learning. Let’s explore what’s available to enhance communication, mobility, and more.
Communication is key for everyone. For those with Down’s syndrome, specialized aids can help. Picture boards and speech-generating devices are great for those who struggle with speech. There are also apps and software designed to aid communication. These tools can open up new ways to interact and express oneself.
- Learning aids – Adaptive equipment like slant boards for writing, or aids to grasp pencils and pens can assist with schoolwork. Audio books and screen readers are useful learning supports.
Daily Living Aids
Daily tasks can be challenging but they don’t have to be. Adapted cutlery, plates, and cups make eating easier. Dressing aids like button hooks and shoe horns can simplify getting ready in the morning. These aids are practical and can boost independence in day-to-day activities.
Understanding daily events is easier with visual schedules. These use photos or drawings to outline the day’s activities. They help prepare for what’s coming next, reducing anxiety and confusion. Visual schedules are a simple yet effective way to bring structure to the day.
Sensory sensitivities are common in people with Down’s syndrome. Headphones can help manage noise levels, while sunglasses can reduce light sensitivity. Weighted blankets offer comfort and sensory regulation. These aids can make environments more manageable and enjoyable.
Mobility is crucial for independence. Handrails, walkers, and canes offer physical support and stability. For those with significant challenges, wheelchairs are available. These aids empower individuals to move freely and safely, enhancing their quality of life.
Managing behaviour is easier with the right strategies. Visual cues, social stories, and behavioural therapy can reinforce positive actions. Consistent routines also help in maintaining appropriate behaviour. These supports offer a structured way to encourage good habits and social interactions.
Augmentative Communication Devices
When speech is limited, augmentative devices come into play. These tools use symbols, signs, and pictures to aid communication. They can supplement verbal abilities, making interactions smoother and more meaningful. These devices are especially useful for those who find verbal communication challenging.
Tech tools like Ginger for grammar, Solo 6 Literacy Suite for reading, and Simple Smartphone for easy use are game-changers. See and Learn Speech and Echo Dot also offer unique support. These technologies can assist in various tasks, from writing to setting reminders, making daily life more manageable.
Early Intervention Services
Early intervention is key. Services like physical therapy, speech and language therapy, and occupational therapy can offer targeted support. These therapies can be tailored to individual needs, providing a strong foundation for development and growth.
Best Resources for People with Down Syndrome
Local and National Support Networks
The National Down Syndrome Congress connects people to a broad network of local, regional, and national organizations.
Down Syndrome Resource Foundation (DSRF)
DSRF empowers people through educational programs, health services, and social connections.
Trisomy 21 Parent Peer Program
This program matches families with caregivers for support and resources.
KidsHealth is a go-to site for explaining Down Syndrome to parents, teens, and children.
Emory School of Medicine
Emory School of Medicine offers resources like the Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta and Babies Can’t Wait.
Global Down Syndrome Foundation
The Global Down Syndrome Foundation focuses on research, medical care, education, and advocacy.
These resources offer a range of programs for education, research, advocacy, and support
More on Disability Horizons…
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- Zack Gottsagen: an actor with Down’s syndrome tipped for Oscar glory
- Step and Stone: a Bristol-based bakery training people with learning disabilities
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