September 15, 2008
Walnut Creek Down Syndrome Advocates Work to Increase Sensitivity
By Theresa Harrington
Like many couples engaged to be married, Christi Hockel and Austin Davenport look lovingly into each other's eyes as they talk about sharing their lives together.But unlike most couples, they share a disability that could complicate their marriage -- Down syndrome.
"We need to think about us," Davenport said, as Hockel snuggled up to him on the couch in her family's home. "People get married with Down syndrome. I've never got married before. And people told me, 'It's OK to be nervous.' We're all people."
The pair met through the National Down Syndrome Congress, which hosts annual conferences for people with the disability and offers them the opportunity to be "self advocates" who work to broaden awareness and sensitivity around the country. Hockel, 29, recently appeared in two public-service announcements for the group's promotional "We're More Alike Than Different" campaign, highlighting her enthusiasm about planning a wedding for 300 guests and her weekly exercise routine.
"A lot of people have Down syndrome," Hockel said. "I like to be with them, have fun with them, play games with them, talk with them, giving out my business cards, telling them that I was on the (self- advocates) board."
Locally, Hockel has read aloud at Barnes & Noble during Down syndrome awareness month. She also works as a bagger at Safeway and volunteers at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek with her mother, Judie Hockel.
"With special needs come special gifts and special graces," said Judie, 69, who gave birth to Christi at age 39. "She has absolutely done nothing but enrich our lives. And I wish that everybody that faces a pregnancy where they've gotten a diagnosis of Down syndrome could understand that and believe that."
Judie has helped and encouraged her daughter to attend public schools, including Northgate High and Diablo Valley College, where Christi performed in several theater productions.
"To me, it's been important to make Christi whatever is the best that she can possibly be, because I want people to see her and I want people to know, it's not as bad as your initial thought of, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm having a baby that's going to have deficits,'" said Judie, a mother of six. "And besides, there's no guarantee with those normal kids."
Since Republican presidential nominee John McCain selected Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, Down syndrome has received a sudden boost in media attention, because Palin recently gave birth to a baby with the disability. David Forney, spokesman for the National Down Syndrome Congress, said it is too early to tell whether this attention will end up being beneficial, but he hopes it will help clear up misconceptions.
"People with Down syndrome are ordinary people and they live lives that are just like yours and mine and those lives are to be valued," said Forney, whose 30-year-old son with the disability works as a legal assistant and lives independently. "Within the last 25 or 30 years, the typical person with Down syndrome was raised by his or her family, has gone to public schools and, increasingly, they're going onto postsecondary education."
Still, the percentage of people with the disability who marry is fairly low, Forney said. He praised the Hockels for having the confidence in Christie and Davenport, 31, to assist them in their quest to live a married life.
"What we hope the general public learns is also a lesson that we're still trying to teach our own families," Forney said, noting that some parents are highly protective of their children with Down syndrome and don't believe they are capable of living independently, holding down jobs or managing their own money.
Movies such as "Tropic Thunder" reinforce negative stereotypes, say the Hockels. Several groups representing people with disabilities object to the Ben Stiller film because it makes fun of people by calling them "retards."
Christi and her friend Tracy Burke, 43, who also has Down syndrome, recently protested the movie in downtown Walnut Creek.
"It's hurtful and mean to other people," Christi said. "I'm not retarded because I'm smart and I've got Austin in my life and he means a lot to me and I love him a lot."
Theresa Harrington covers Walnut Creek. Reach her at 925-945- 4764 or [email protected]
Information about the National Down Syndrome Congress and the More Alike than Different campaign can be found at 800-232-NDSC (6372) or www.ndsccenter.org. Local support is available through the Down Syndrome Connection at 925-362-8660. The National Down Syndrome Society is at 800-221-4602 or www.ndss.org.
To see the Hockels and Austin Davenport talk about Down syndrome, visit ContraCostaTimes.com.
Originally published by Theresa Harrington, Contra Costa Times.
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