Sean McElwee is most likely the first person with an intellectual disability to achieve celebrity status in the United States.
If that sounds like an exaggeration, you haven’t seen the massive billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles featuring Sean’s face, part of the marketing campaign for A&E’s game changing reality showBorn This Way.
The premise isn’t much different than dozens of other cable programs in syndication: Seven friends set out to chase their dreams as the cameras capture the obstacles, laughter, tears and relationship drama that comes along with it all.
What makes Born This Way different is that all seven of these friends have Down syndrome, a genetic disorder marked by slowed mental development, short stature and modified facial features.
Down syndrome isn’t as well known as autism, mainly because the genetic disorder can be tested for in pregnancy, and between 60-92 percent of parents choose to abort their child as a result of the diagnosis. Those fortunate enough not to be aborted must overcome the same stigmas that all people with disabilities face in modern culture.
A Different Viewing Experience
But if there’s one person determined to reverse the negative stereotypes of people Down syndrome; it’s Sean. Since he was a child, Sean has fervently prayed for fame, and in this particular case, God seems to have answered. Watching the show, he seems destined for the spotlight, playing golf, jokingly flirting with his best friend’s girlfriend, drinking beer at the corner pub.
In many ways, he’s the same jovial blue collar character who’s made shows like Duck Dynasty and Pawn Stars huge hits but with a unique set of challenges to overcome.
The show stands out in a world of Kardashians, Dance Moms and Real Housewives because it doesn’t focus on adults making increasingly poor life decisions to prop up their own egos. Born This Way also doesn’t stoop to manipulating your emotions to watch out of pity. Instead, the show’s producers play it straight, and that’s what makes it such a refreshing viewing experience.
The casual viewer may not catch it at first, but what makes Born This Way such compelling TV is that it’s one of the only reality shows to feature a cast that builds each other up, rather than carrying the plot along on petty arguments and juvenile behavior.
Saving Lives with Each Episode
Sean’s mom, Sandra McElwee, like all parents on Born This Way, serves as an advocate, coach and cheerleader as her child goes after his dreams. She’s been fighting to spread the pro-life message about Down syndrome since 1996 when she launched a website for parents with a Down syndrome diagnosis during pregnancy. But the medium of a reality show has ramped up the message in ways she and other parents never could have dreamed.
Recently, a woman approached Sandra at a conference to share that she had scheduled an abortion after a Down syndrome diagnosis, because a doctor said her child would be a “vegetable.” She canceled the abortion and challenged her doctor—who insisted that the seven cast members on Born This Way, who hold down jobs, pursue passions ranging from music to entrepreneurship and some of whom live independently—“were the exception to the rule.”
In reality, A&E was careful to cast adults with the median Down syndrome experience.
It’s one of dozens of stories that Sandra has heard as a result of the show. The fact that Born This Way is erasing stereotypes and leading pregnant parents to cancel abortions is a bright spot in the reality TV genre, which is mainly known for showing the world impossibly pretty people and their manufactured problems.
The Faith Driving Cultural Change
Since Sean was a young child, the McElwees have built their family around the cornerstone of faith in Christ, always encouraging their son to get out and try, despite his differing abilities. For years, Sean took acting classes and tirelessly auditioned, though he never landed a role.
When the opportunity for the family to audition for Born This Way came along, Sandra says she felt a nudging from God, despite the risk that the producers could edit the show in such a way that Sean and the other cast members were mocked and set up as the butt of jokes. “I heard that little God voice in my head that said ‘Go for it,’” she recalls. “I knew that if they did it right, it could be a total game changer for people with Down syndrome. I’m so thankful that the producers held true to their vision.”
“The biggest problem that people have with anyone who’s different, and especially with disabilities, is fear,” Sandra continues. “Now, people come up to Sean and want to say hello and take a selfie. They got to know seven adults with Down syndrome from the comfort of their couch, and now the fear is gone. And that’s the most amazing thing.”