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A&E's 'Born This Way': Sean's Mother Sandra Discusses Faith, Making the World a Better Place for People With Down Syndrome

( [email protected] ) Jul 21, 2016 06:06 PM EDT
In an exclusive interview with The Gospel Herald, Sandra McElwee, mother of Sean, opened up about faith, her experience as a mother of a special needs child, and why she's passionate about the inclusion and acceptance for all people with Down syndrome.
A&E Network’s critically acclaimed and award-winning original docuseries “Born This Way” returns for a second season featuring 10 brand-new episodes on Tuesday, Grace Hill Media

"Born This Way," the groundbreaking docuseries from A&E, is returning for a second season on July 26th and promises to once again bring humor, heart, and honesty to television.

Currently nominated for three Emmy awards, the heartwarming reality show offers an in-depth look at the lives of seven young men and the women who are born with Down syndrome as well as their friends and families.

"Throughout the series, they pursue their passions and lifelong dreams, explore friendships, romantic relationships and work, all while defying society's expectations," reads the network's description of the show.

This season, "Born This Way" will continue to break down the stigma associated with disability as the young adults continue to grow in their personal independence and relationships, all while living life as "....God made us to be."

One of the stars of the program is Sean McElwee, whose mother, Sandra, works as an advocate for unborn babies with Down syndrome and created one of the first websites for parents with a prenatal diagnosis.

In an exclusive interview with The Gospel Herald, Sandra opened up about faith, her experience as a mother of a special needs child, and why she's passionate about the inclusion and acceptance for all people with Down syndrome.

GH: In what ways has Sean blessed and brought joy into your life?

SM: He's our only child, and any child brings joy into your life, I believe. He's just a really, funny fun person and has a big faith and truly believes everything he dreams is going to come true and prays about it on a regular basis, and it usually does - it blows us away all the time.

Born This Way
(Photo : Grace Hill Media)
The McElwee family

GH: Can you tell us some of the challenges that Sean has had to face in his quest for independence and love?

SM: Sean has faced challenges when it comes to opportunities for jobs and things like that. He interviewed for a full year before he landed a job. Of course, with romance, (laughs) he just wants a girlfriend whose parents will actually let them have a boyfriend. He's had a couple of girlfriends he was really in love with, and their parents didn't ever believe that their child would move out and live independently and couldn't imagine their daughters getting married, and actually made them break up. So, that's one his biggest challenges, is finding someone else whose parents encourage independence in their lives, too.

GH: How has Sean's faith helped him through some of these challenges?

SM: Just knowing that God has a bigger picture and that if things don't work out with each situation, person or job, God has a bigger plan, and He will always come through with a bigger plan, bigger than any of could imagine. With Sean, I've seen that happen over and over again.

GH: How has Sean's faith affected or grown your own faith?

GH: Sean truly believes that God is going to provide for him, and He does over and over again. We just sit back and watch, and as I look back over time, I can see the steps in the background - it's like that proverb about how you take the next step even when you can't see the staircase. Sean has taken us to that next step over and over again. When we found out about the show, we were like, "Ok, well, this is just the next step God has for us, and we'll just have faith that it'll all turn out great." My hope was that it would educate the world about people with Down syndrome, when most people don't know anyone with Down syndrome. Now they do; they know seven adults and soon to be ten adults with Down syndrome from watching the show. That by itself takes away a lot of fear, and when you take away the fear, then the opportunities really open up.

GH: As Sean's mother, what are some of the challenges you have had to face?

SM: When Sean was in junior high and high school, he was discriminated against. The administration didn't want to handle Sean's inclusion and they fought us, even though legally he had a right to be in regular classes. It was a strong struggle that we had just trying to gain Sean's acceptance and have the school give him the opportunities he wanted.

He's wanted to be an actor for a long time, and he loves being onstage. The drama teacher was basically forced to have Sean in Drama 1, but he would not put Sean in the play. Right before the play was actually on, the other students found out Sean wasn't cast and had a fit. The other performers refused to perform unless Sean got a part. But then, the teacher didn't allow Sean to go onto Drama 2 and wouldn't allow him in the music theater class. He actually told me that he had to "focus more on students who actually had a chance on the entertainment industry" and couldn't waste his time on Sean. I would love to know how many of Sean's classmates are actually in the entertainment industry now (laughs). That was the biggest challenge was convincing people to give Sean the opportunities, because I knew once he had the opportunities, he'd be able to shine.

GH: What are some of the ways the faith-based community can support Sean, his friends, and others born with Down syndrome in attaining independence and pursuing their dreams?

SM: Opportunities. Opportunities for employment, opportunities for friendship. Sean is a great friend and he is lucky to have his friends Sean and Hillary that are great friends, but he doesn't have that many other typical friends at this point and time. So, to reach out and be a friend to someone with disability and with Down syndrome, and that can be done through Best Buddies organization - they facilitate friendships all the time. The other thing is for employment. Hopefully this show is taking away the fear that people with Down syndrome are different, and showing the world that they're not, they're just like everyone else, they have hopes and dreams and desires, and they're actually pretty fun people to be around.

GH: Can you explain the importance of your friendship with the other parents on this show, and how important is it to have each other's support?

SM: We've been very lucky to have supportive relationships with parents who have children with a variety of disabilities - from sports teams Sean's been on, to the support groups we've been in. When you're going through the same challenges, it really makes a big difference when you do have the support of other people who are walking your same path. We've really made good friends with the other families on the show. One family we've known for years, and Steven's family actually lives closest to us of anybody but we didn't know them. Sean's been in a social group for awhile, and Steven is in the same social group now, too, and they really enjoy each other's company. We get together outside of taping all the time, and the moms text each other all the time. We actually go out to dinner and don't tell the producers so they don't send cameras (laughs). We really have a really good time together.

GH: In season 2, does Sean achieve accomplishments or milestones that you'd like to share?

SM: Well, Sean and Steven get a place together. Sean has been on the housing and urban development wait list for 4 ½ years and his number came up this year. As it was getting closer, we were talking to him about getting a roommate, and he was adamant about not getting a roommate. In his mind - he's a very concrete thinker - roommate means "they're in my room." Being an only child, he doesn't want anyone in his space. So, we said, "We'll try this for a month so you can see what it's like." Plus, he was afraid to move out and be alone, he didn't understand how the supportive living staff would play into the situation, so he was very nervous. So for him to actually experience moving out, what a roommate is like, and to see the supportive living staff, that took all of his fear away.

GH: "Born This Way" is nominated for three Emmy awards. Were you surprised by the popularity of the show?

SM: No. (laughs) I was hoping it would be more popular, to be honest with you. As far as reality shows go, it is their real lives, and I just hope we have more viewership for season 2 because I really believe it's a game changer for people with Down syndrome, for the world to get to know them and get to know that they're not really that different.

GH: What advice and encouragement would you offer to other parents whose children are both with Down Syndrome or other disabilities?

SM: I would encourage them to raise their child and support their child's dreams, even if the dreams seem crazy. One time Sean told me he wanted to be an LA Laker. Instead of telling him, "Well, there are no 5'1 LA Lakers, that's not gonna happen," I told him to go practice basketball. I said, "You better start practicing, you better start making some three pointers," (laughs). So, he practiced basketball, and worst case scenario, he got some good exercise.

When he was in high school he wanted his driver's license like his friends. So we put him in the classroom portion of driver's ed and told him if he could pass the written test, then we would help him get a driver's license. Thank God, he couldn't pass the written test (laughs). But we didn't tell him no. We supported him in what he wanted to do, and the same thing with the acting. He had so many auditions where he didn't get cast, mainly because his articulation wasn't that good. But, he started working on his articulation himself and would correct himself in speaking because he wanted that so bad. He's the most tenacious person I've ever met, and he doesn't give up. And it has truly paid off.