Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Hindsight is 20/20: Growing with an older sister with Down syndrome

On World Down Syndrome Day, contributor Allan Bradbury reflects on what he learned from his sister, Sheila. 

On World Down Syndrome Day, Allan Bradbury reflects on what he learned from his sister, Sheila 

From left, Bradbury siblings Allan, Sheila and Erin on Sheila's 30th birthday. Blue and yellow are the colours that represent Down syndrome. (Submitted by Allan Bradbury)

For a long time as a child I felt like I was getting ripped off by my older sister.

I felt like I wasn't getting the same thing out of having an older sister that other people did. On TV I saw kids who got advice from their older siblings and learned from them. They seemed to get more out of it than I thought I was.

My older sister, Sheila, has Down syndrome.

So, my childhood was a bit different from maybe the "typical" childhood, at least in my young mind.

Even as a teenager I would have loved to have had an older sister I could talk to about dating, or other things I didn't want to discuss with my parents.

Sheila loves deeper than anyone I know. This is actually true for anyone I've come across with Down syndrome.

My parents weren't necessarily prepared for how school would work for me as I progressed, because Sheila had progressed differently, so they were doing things for the first time too.

In those ways I was the oldest child, leading the way for my younger sister Erin when it came to these things, helping out as best I could.

For those who don't know, Down syndrome is a chromosomal disorder also known as Trisomy 21 because the most common form has to do with a triplication of the 21st chromosome.

The effects vary greatly, and Down syndrome comes with a variety of intellectual and physical challenges. 

'I have learned a lot from Sheila'

Some people with Down syndrome are non-verbal and need round the clock care. Others work steady jobs and lead independent lives. 

My sister falls somewhere in the middle.

Sheila is the farthest thing from non-verbal; she'll talk to anyone and everyone who will listen. She does her own laundry (and mine from time to time, if she's feeling generous). She keeps her room much cleaner than I keep mine, and she doesn't grumble too much when I ask for help cleaning up the house. 

There are plenty of things she doesn't understand. She's not great with money and doesn't do well with telling time, but she's a very independent woman. Although it might have felt like I missed out on having a "normal" older sister, hindsight is 20/20. I have learned a lot from Sheila.

On March 21, people raise awareness for World Down Syndrome Day by wearing odd socks. Socks like these are chosen because of their resemblance to chromosomes. (Submitted by Allan Bradbury)

Special Olympics

Because of my sister, my parents re-launched the Special Olympics program in Grand Falls-Windsor, where the program had gone dormant.

Being involved with Special Olympics showed me — as it says in their motto — even if you can't win, you should "be brave in the attempt." Special Olympians have also taught me that music is for dancing, and don't worry about how you look.

The summer before Sheila started Grade 11 my parents moved our family to Africa to work as missionaries. This would be hard for many people. Sheila embraced the move as well as any of us could have. She didn't pick up French very well but she figured out how to communicate with locals just fine.

Erin, Allan and Sheila Bradbury. (Submitted by Allan Bradbury)

Sheila loves deeper than anyone I know. This is actually true for anyone I've come across with Down syndrome.

They love without the promise of anything in return — and without judgment. This means Sheila hurts more too. She was inconsolable when a high school classmate passed away a few years ago despite not having seen him in several years.

There are so many good things I've experienced, because my sister is who she is.

Saturday is World Down Syndrome Day. March 21, or 3/21, because of Trisomy 21.

Normally there would be fun events to raise awareness, but because of COVID-19, those events won't take place this year — but we can all still wear our odd socks. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

Allan Bradbury is a student journalist with the College of the North Atlantic.