Concept of the month March 2016: Discrimination


Being a translator, incorrect use of words is a daily recurring issue. Most historical linguists reject this qualification, arguing that word meaning “evolves by use”. Nonetheless, I would hereby like to express my concern about a word that means making distinctions. The original meaning of the word I’m concerned about has been surpassed by a new one, though, describing a hot potato in modern-day society. This is because the new meaning implies attaching a higher or lower value to the acknowledged distinction, while someone who is different, is fundamentally of equal value. It is only when this basic principle is forgotten, that commotion occurs. That’s when you call it discrimination.


The concept of discrimination is often used incorrectly. An example of this is its use in the debate on the prenatal test that the Dutch government is trying to introduce, aimed at reducing the number of babies born with Down syndrome, the “Non-Invasive Prenatal Test” (NIPT). The minister in question (Ms Edith Schippers) says it would be discrimination not to offer the test to all parents-to-be.


The problem is that what this minister really does, is indeed attaching values to differences. She pretends that the difference between a person with Down syndrome and one without is a reason to create the opportunity to prevent the life of such a person, claiming Down is a source of pain. Without getting into the debate on whether any source of pain could be a valid reason to prevent a life, this is one distinction she overlooks. Down syndrome is not an illness or a source of pain.


The reality is that the generally negative perception of Down syndrome will drive all pregnant women towards abortion when the NIPT is offered as a standard procedure. This is already happening in 9 out of 10 cases where prenatal tests show Down syndrome. People with Down form a valuable variation and can reach the same age and state of happiness as anyone. To discourage their birth is a serious case of discrimination.


Another consequence of this policy is that people with Down syndrome, just like their (future) parents, will be considered inferior, much in the same way as various minority groups are in many countries. Acknowledging the meaning and consequences of introducing a test as a standard procedure is evidence of clear thinking. Failing to do so leads to discrimination.


March 21st was World Down Syndrome Day. In Amsterdam, this was celebrated on Saturday the 19th with an afternoon of fun and games for children and adolescents with Down syndrome and their siblings. 68 families showed up and I saw something I already knew: Down syndrome itself doesn’t discriminate at all.

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