Women We Love: Cate Sayers

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Cate Sayers has four daughters, the second of whom, Alexandra, was born with Down syndrome. All four girls love dancing and were attending the local dance school. But when Alexandra turned seven, it became clear that she needed extra support. She was starting to lose confidence and self-esteem as other dancers sped ahead. ''Alexandra was not meeting her potential for a number of reasons, and I believe really strongly that all children should have the same opportunities to grow and develop in life. So I had to find a way for her to continue with something that she really wanted to do.''

So Cate Sayers rented a hall and a teacher, and e.motion21 was born. It is a non-profit, Victoria-based organisation that provides fitness and dance classes for children and young adults aged between 4 and 35 with Down syndrome.

“E.motion21 is about enhancing lives and changing perceptions about Down syndrome in the community,” says Sayers, the founder and chief executive of the organisation.

''The self-esteem and the confidence that is blossoming in these young people is incredible, simply through coming into an environment where they are going to be successful, because we set it up that way, and where we have high expectations of them. These programs are really supporting them to be secure and safe in who they are.''

Sayers finds it heartbreaking that so many people living with Down syndrome have not reached their potential because of inadequate support and lack of opportunities. "They want to work, live independently and enjoy life like we get to, so we need to support them in this and everyone will benefit,'' she says.

E.motion21's core purpose is to help children and young people with Down syndrome reach their potential, but it is also driven by Sayers' desire to change community perceptions and attitudes about the condition. E.motion21's motto is ''Moving Bodies, Moving Boundaries''. One in 1100 Australian babies is born with Down syndrome. Sayers wants each of them to receive the support they need to reach their potential to be happy, to work, to create and to participate in a broader community.

''Often it's not the disability that is the barrier to people reaching their potential; it is the reaction to that disability in society …" she says.

''We have got a long way to go as a society in terms of embracing all people and all abilities. Things are changing, but, you know, it really comes down to people's understanding, and I think that is why e.motion21 is able to play a part in shifting people's attitudes and preconceived ideas.''

And Sayers has got as much out of the journey as anyone. When Alexandra was born she found it confronting. She had never met another person who had Down syndrome and didn't know what that meant.

''It has been quite a learning curve. With improved health and education there have been tremendous changes in the life outlook for the people with Down syndrome, and with improved opportunities, whether it be through education or employment or opportunities like dance, we are going to realise the potential of these people in a way we haven't done in the past.''

Here is an article Cate Sayers wrote in response to a 60 Minutes story about baby Gammy, who was born with Down syndrome by a surrogate in Thailand and left there while his healthy twin sister Pipah was taken home by their Australian parents.

Rejecting Gammy is a good thing

As a mother of four daughters, one born with Down syndrome, I could relate to Mr Farnell when he said, "I don't think any parent wants a son with a disability. Parents want their children to be healthy and happy and be able to do everything that every other children do".

We too were scared, didn’t know what to do, were in turmoil, in shock. But abandoning your child and asking for your money back? Returning spoiled goods to the supermarket for a refund I admit to doing, but children are not products to be bought and returned if imperfect or don’t meet your expectations.

My children have been exposed to the Gammy saga along with millions of others.

Over the weekend, my eight-year-old daughter asked; "Mummy, my friends said that a mother in Thailand left her shopping trolley at the airport with her baby in it because it had a disability and she didn’t want it. Why?" My 12-year-old with Down syndrome was in the car listening in to the conversation.

These perceptions limit the potential of people with a disability more than the disability itself. People need to know that given the right learning environment and opportunities, people with Down syndrome can lead happy and healthy lives, can have careers, can travel, can live independently, can get married, can contribute economically to Australia's future and actually enhance society.

Twelve years ago our baby arrived as planned. Not resembling her blonde blue-eyed sister, we lovingly joked that she must have been delivered by the milkman. On the second day our world was turned upside down when we were told that our baby had Down syndrome.

I remember every minute of that day vividly – the shock, anger and disappointment. But whilst tears flowed from me, so too did the intense love I had for my little baby. The same basic human emotions that drive most parents - unconditional love and protection at all costs.

Back in 2002 I was determined to change the status quo for my daughter to have a life full of health, happiness and respect. But even now, we come across varying levels of expectations for Alle. Two weeks ago my response to a questions on where she goes to school was met with surprise. "Your daughter with Down syndrome goes to a normal school like her sisters?"

Five years ago, after being unable to find an appropriate dance class to meet my daughter’s learning needs, I set up e.motion21- a not-for-profit volunteer organisation that provides an Australian-first dance and fitness program designed specifically for children and young adults with Down syndrome. Our vision is to enhance lives and change perceptions of Down syndrome within society through dance, fitness and performance. We achieve this by:

  1. Moving bodies; providing programs to children and young adults with Down syndrome in supportive and social environments tailored to meet their specific learning needs.
  2. Moving boundaries; engaging positively with individuals, families and communities through our programs, performances and media to uncover new potential, promote understanding and raise expectations.

Our annual concert is a highlight of the year for our dancers, their families and the wider community. The joy, skill and creative expression shared is truly inspiring. This year’s theme is 'Around the World' and is quite fitting as international role model Lauren Potter will be co-hosting this special event.

Lauren, a young woman with Down syndrome has achieved great success with the popular television show, Glee but is also a strong activist for individuals with developmental disabilities and a dedicated anti-bullying campaigner. In November 2011, President Barack Obama appointed Potter to the Presidents Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, where she advises the White House on issues related to that population.

As an amazing global role model, Lauren’s presence in Australia will not only thrill our children with Down syndrome but raise their expectations, and their parents and the Australian public about what people with Down syndrome can achieve if given the chance!

Stories like Gammy’s continue to highlight to me the importance of our work in moving boundaries. Lauren Potter’s involvement is even more profound now as she exemplifies the success that people with Down syndrome can achieve if given the opportunity.

DiscriminationPrue Gilbert