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Newman Humanities Research Seminar Series

Reading Down syndrome: past, present, future?

Dr Helen Davies

This is a crucial moment for thinking about the future of people with Down syndrome, considering that 2018 has seen the introduction of non-invasive pre-natal testing via the NHS. Evidence from countries such as Iceland suggests that the availability of NIPTs leads to very high percentages of terminations, and disability rights groups have argued that this trend is tantamount to a strategy of modern eugenics (Burch 2017, pp. 1085-1089).

This paper seeks to explore the way in which various ‘futures’ of characters with Down syndrome are constructed in several contemporary novels, including Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child (1988) and Colleen Faulkner’s Just Like Other Daughters (2013). I consider the ways in which certain stereotypes of the condition established by Victorian medical discourses (John Langdon Down; John Fraser and Arthur Mitchell) remain, most troublingly, unchallenged in contemporary fiction. In this sense, we are still dealing with the legacies of the past when dealing with the imagined future of people with Down syndrome. However, as a counterpoint to this pessimistic outlook, I will explore the ways in which more experimental contemporary fiction – namely Jesse Ball’s Census (2018) – seek to deploy aesthetic and political innovation to imagine futures with agency, dignity, and inclusion for their characters.

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