Down Syndrome Does Not Mean Dumb, A Magazine Can Prove It

A German biologist spent two years on a project whose aim was to understand how people with Down syndrome think about the world. She wound up creating a magazine that capitalizes on their intelligence.

So much to say.
So much to say.
Manuel Stark

BERLIN — Stefan Duve doesn't like Fridays. On the last day of the work week , he typically sits at a table and connects little plastic pieces that look a bit like grey LEGOs. In fact, he's in the middle of the production chain for vehicle components for BMW. But laboring in the workshop of the German charitable organization Caritas is very monotonous, and Duve says it bores him.

His colleague Martin causes a ruckus every few minutes by starting to shout. "It's not his fault," the 24-year-old Duve says. "It's just a quirk of his. But I don't like it when someone starts to yell."

Still, both men are earning their own money at the workshop.

The work that Duve truly loves is his job as a waiter at the Munich Café Network. He works there from Monday to Thursday. Normally, the café hires long-term unemployed women as a way to help them get back into the professional work environment. But its operators are glad to make an exception for Duve, who says he would be happiest working in the service industry. "That is my dream," he says.

But to find a permanent position doing what he loves is extremely difficult for people like him: Duve has Down syndrome.

A world of prejudice

Katja de Bragança is confronted with prejudices against people with Down syndrome on a daily basis. A human biologist, de Bragança worked for nearly two years at the University of Bonn on a project aimed at understanding how people with Down syndrome perceive the world and how the world in turn perceives them. The conventional wisdom for a long time was that the people affected by the condition were unable to read or write.

No one knows this to be untrue better than de Bragança. In 2000, she founded the magazine Ohrenkuss (Earskiss), which is published twice a year, with articles written exclusively by people with Down syndrome.

"People with Down syndrome are considered to be a bit simple-minded, although they are quite intelligent," de Bragança says. "There are an awful lot of untrue prejudices in circulation in regards to how people with Down syndrome function."

Changing demands cause stress

Luckily, Stefan Duve hasn't been the victim of poor treatment during his shifts at the café. He feels respected and accepted by both customers and colleagues. "They are all very friendly to me, and I'm allowed to do and try a lot of things," he says.

He specifically loves the sound of the chalk on the blackboard outside the café when he writes down the daily special, "usually something containing pasta." He definitely prefers the light sound of the clinking glasses and the laughs of the playing children to the screaming of his colleague Martin in the Caritas workshop.

Although Duve earns only a small amount of money at the café, he values the variety of his work and likes that he has a strictly regulated daily routine. "I have to write up the daily special on the blackboard first, then clean and then serve the customers and be friendly," Duve says.

Structure is important. "People with Down syndrome adjust to new situations only slowly," says Stefan Meir, head psychologist of the psychiatric ambulance services of St. Luke Hospital in Liebenau. "It makes things easier for them when they have regulated routines. Changing demands can cause stress and create a strain."

It doesn't surprise Meir to hear that Duve feels at home in the service industry. "People with Down syndrome are especially approachable. It's easy to build a relationship with them since they love to be in contact with people," he says.

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