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Viral ad campaign challenges perceptions for World Down Syndrome Day 2024

Mia Armstrong on new book
Mia Armstrong says Down syndrome is a superpower 06:29

People with Down syndrome have a message for the world: "Assume that I can." An international awareness campaign, launched ahead of World Down Syndrome Day on Thursday, challenges negative biases that people with Down syndrome can face. 

A young woman, played by Canadian actress Madison Tevlin, discusses the low expectations others have for people like her — whether it be going out to bars, education or even dating with a disability.

ASSUME THAT I CAN | World Down Syndrome Day 2024 (Official Clean Version) by CoorDown on YouTube

"Your assumption becomes reality," she says in the video. "But hey, if your assumptions become reality, then assume that I can."

The video then shows Tevlin's character drinking at a bar, learning Shakespeare and living on her own. 

"The message really says a lot," Tevlin told CBS News. "It's impactful and powerful to so many people out there in the world."

Italy's CoorDown partnered with the National Down Syndrome Society in the U.S., the Canadian Down Syndrome Society and other organizations around the world. Since its launch on March 14, the campaign has a lot of people talking. 

"This video is driving the conversation," Kandi Pickard, president and CEO of NDSS, told CBS News. "Bringing more awareness to Down syndrome, bringing more awareness of still these preconceived notions and stereotypes."

She says the NDSS has seen an increase in outreach from individuals that want to do more as a result of this campaign. The ongoing discussion will hopefully lead to a broader discussion about how these preconceived notions hold the disability community back.

"We need to make sure as a society that we're respecting that people with disabilities have a voice and that people with disabilities deserve to be heard and respected," Pickard said. 

What is World Down Syndrome Day?

World Down Syndrome Day has been observed annually by the United Nations since 2012. The significance behind the date March 21st, or 3-21, is the fact that those with Down syndrome are born with three copies of Chromosome 21 instead of two. It is celebrated in 190 countries. 

CoorDown's social media accounts show people with Down syndrome who aren't letting society define what it means to be living with an intellectual disability: They're CEOs, chefs, Emmy-award actors, and more. 

Mia Armstrong, a 13-year-old who's already a highly accomplished actor, model and advocate, has added author to her credentials with her new children's book, "I Am a Masterpiece!" In it, she shares her experiences living with Down syndrome and it is her superpower.

In 2022, Sofía Jirau became the first woman with Down syndrome to model for Victoria's Secret. 

"I love the camera," Jirau told CBS Mornings lead national correspondent David Begnaud. 

Charlotte Woodward, is a graduate of George Mason University and an education program associate for the NDSS — and is advocating for a new law that prevents discrimination based on disability in the organ transplant process. 

Charlotte Woodward NDSS

End the stereotypes

The message behind the now-viral campaign was inspired by the 2019 speech given by Italian Down syndrome advocate Marta Sodano at the United Nations. She noted that when teachers assume a student cannot understand, they will not teach, and the student doesn't learn. 

Marta Sodano, self-advocate for CoorDown Onlus Italy, makes remarks during the annual observance of World Down Syndrome Day in 2019. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

"If I think of all the things that were not explained and taught to me, well, I really get angry," she said, according to a NDSS news release

This is what's described as a "self-fulfilling prophecy," a phrase coined by U.S. sociologist Robert K. Merton in the 1940s. These stereotypes, biases, and low expectations can affect every aspect of people living with intellectual disabilities. 

"These preconceived notions just don't always presume competence within the disability community," Pickard said. "Everybody's journey is different, but we have to assume that people with disabilities can make decisions about what choices they have in their life."

Tevlin, who appeared alongside Woody Harrelson in the 2023 film "Champions," is well aware of the so-called "notions" society placed on her. 

"I have Down syndrome and it's the least interesting thing about me," she said. "It's a part of who I am, but it's not all of me."

In a 2023 op-ed for PORTER magazine, Tevlin said that a doctor told her parents that life would be hard for her.  

"They were told that I may never talk or walk, and I may never be able to hold a job," she wrote. "If only that doctor could see me now. I certainly talk and I definitely walk. In fact, I just walked a red carpet."

Tevlin also challenges society's stereotypes by presenting her own story as a person who has passions and goals. She doesn't want people to be judging those with Down syndrome and other disabilities. 

"Take the time to listen to our stories and what we have to share with the world," she said. "Just because we have Down syndrome, it doesn't stop us or limit us."

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