Down Syndrome in Iceland: A Music Therapist’s Response

Down Syndrome in Iceland: A Music Therapist’s Response

A little over a month ago, CBS News released a report stating that the number of people diagnosed with Down Syndrome in Iceland has virtually disappeared (see link below). This report was met with extreme controversy, as the means to “eradicate” Down Syndrome is through fetal termination. See, doctors offer prenatal screening to check for any chromosomal anomalies (the most common being Down Syndrome). Based on the results, the mother has the option to terminate the fetus. While the prenatal screenings are recommended, they are certainly not required. Even so, about 80% of pregnant women in Iceland choose to have the screenings, and almost 100% choose to terminate a fetus with a chromosomal abnormality. This was pretty shocking to me when I first read the story. I had a lot of questions, and struggled to wrap my brain around it. But the more I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to this generalization: as a society, we are scared of things we don’t understand. If you’re a teacher, parent, relative, therapist, or friend of someone with Down Syndrome, you have a different perspective than someone who has never met a person with Down Syndrome. After all, why would you be scared of someone you love? Someone who has hopes, dreams, and a future just like you? This is the point I’m getting at: what bothers me so much about what’s happening in Iceland is that we’re stripping away humanity’s wholeness.


When we start to hand pick who fits into our “perfect” population, we are doing humanity an incredible disservice. We are depriving society of the strengths, perspectives, and contributions that people with Down Syndrome (and any other exceptionality) bring to our world. You see, I’ve never learned much from people who are exactly like me. The lessons I’ve learned throughout my life have usually come through a friend with a different perspective, different opinion, or who has wisdom in areas I don’t. I lean in on our differences so that I can have a more holistic view or opinion. When we as a society come together in mutual love and respect, we create an opportunity to learn from each other. We bring our strengths, and feel safe in our weaknesses, knowing that others can lift us up. When we embrace our differences, we create a beautiful unity. But unity is NOT the same as uniformity. Unity celebrates our differences, uniformity criticises them.


As a music therapist, I love to celebrate each of my client’s uniqueness. I know their strengths, weaknesses, passions, successes and failures. But I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t ask, if I didn’t take the time to genuinely listen to what they had to say. I am so glad that I’ve listened over the last few years, as I’ve learned so many lessons from friends who have Down Syndrome. I’ve learned about compassion and empathy, and how to be a true friend. I’ve learned that a smile truly can light up a room. I’ve learned that sometimes in the midst of sorrow, the best thing to do is to laugh. I’ve learned to not let anyone tell me what I can or can’t do. I’ve learned to not live confined by other people’s definition of me.


If I didn’t have these beautiful friends in my life, I would not be the person, therapist, or friend I am today. The truth is, we need our beautiful uniqueness. We need each other. And when we come together in those differences, we can be whole.


If you’d like to read the article, here’s the link

Author: Jordan Van Zyl, LPMT, MT-BC, Neurologic Music Therapist

Hannah Rhinehart LPMT, MT-BC

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