“Not Special Needs”! World Down Syndrome Day Video’s Important Message

The 2017 World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD17) video campaign created by Publicis NY for CoorDown, Italy and with the participation of other Down syndrome organisations, including Down Syndrome Australia, is a powerful example of how inclusive and authentic representation of people with disability in mainstream media can help change cultural attitudes and assumptions to disability – even subconscious attitudes predicated on the well-meaning euphemism “special needs”.

The official WDSD17 theme is “My voice; My community” and the messaging brilliance of this year’s campaign lies in the strong voices and presence – even swagger – of the actors with Down syndrome in the video.


It is a fantastic example of what the mainstream media can do to amplify voices of people with disability – for the realisation of their human rights – and inclusion in society as equal citizens.

The short film, which is directed by Wayne McClammy of Hungry Man and stars Lauren Potter, the actress who played Becky Jackson in hit musical series “Glee”, together with a supporting cast of actors with Down Syndrome that includes Sam Suchmann and Mattie Zufelt, two friends who created the movie “Spring Break Zombie Massacre”, Jared Kozak known for Orson’s Last Dance, Leader of the Pack and Teens Wanna Know and newcomer Ranjani Reyes.  Well known film and television actor John C. McGinley – Dr. Perry Cox on the television series “Scrubs” – makes a hilarious cameo and musician Bruno Mars has lent his latest hit song “That’s What I Like“.

The campaign film, which was seen by approximately 1 million people within 24 hours of its launch, represents another success for Luca Lorenzini and Luca Pannese, the creatives who have been responsible for several other viral world Down Syndrome Day campaigns led by CoorDown and who have excelled in demonstrating the power of mainstream commercial marketing strategies when applied to important social causes.  Lauren Potter

The film also directs viewers to the official campaign website www.notspecialneeds.com which aims to provide additional information about the term “special needs” as a euphemism that should be discarded.  The website states:

People with Down syndrome, like everyone else, have basic human needs – to eat, drink, breathe and sleep – to be nurtured, loved, educated and sheltered – to move, communicate, contribute and work – and to share, love and live.

Sure, people with Down syndrome may need extra assistance. Sometimes they even need significant assistance, and adjustments, to meet a particular need. But that doesn’t make that common human need “special.”

So what words should we use instead? As the website suggests, it depends on the context:

How about just the person’s name? It is not always necessary or appropriate to refer to someone by a label.

But in the situations where it is helpful, we should “say the word,” and call disabilities or the relevant disability what it is – “Disability,” “Down syndrome,” etc.

Julius WDSD

Starting With Julius founder Catia Malaquias has contributed to the work for this campaign – her blog post for Starting With Julius “He Ain’t Special, He’s My Brother” is featured on the official campaign website.

Not Special Needs will be presented to the World Down Syndrome Day Conference to take place on 21 March at United Nations Headquarters in New York.

[Cover photo  © Publicis]

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