Dear Mr. Chris Burke,
My son was born in 1990, a time when the TV show Life Goes On aired on ABC weekly. This show, which featured a main character who happened to have Down syndrome, made its place in history, while you personally demonstrated a life of ambition, of possibility, and of self.
Your ambition validated my own hopes for my son, who also has Down syndrome. Your work rose above the clamor of the naysayers. If/when limits were imposed upon my son's dreams, I looked to you, and your family, and refused to accept the boundaries pushed upon him.
Now, your 50th birthday is around the corner and, well, Happy Birthday! Also, congratulations on 21 years with the NDSS (National Down Syndrome Society). I've heard you're retiring and although we've never met, I'd like to take this moment to thank you for teaching the world, the community, and me:
1) Do what you love. Chris, you told us in a TV interview last year that acting was something you "always wanted to do," and you did it. Many times people put limitations on others and worse, themselves, based on stereotypes, misguided fear, or societal expectations. You broke through all of that.
2) Lead by Example. You know firsthand that being the front man isn't all perks. The bigger the stage the bigger the bullies, but you have deferred to lesson No. 1 and persevered. Because success comes from hard work. It comes from taking the opportunity, excelling, and then making more opportunities.
I don't know your family, but I imagine your mother has been told many times, "He's lucky to have you." I'll bet she's nodded and smiled; I'll bet she's replied how lucky she is, too. As my own life goes on, I've come to notice how intertwined all truly successful people are to a solid network of supporters, teachers, encouragers, family, and friends.
For those that don't know, Down syndrome is a complex chromosomal condition that is part of every cell in the body; it is easily diagnosed in a blood test and often recognizable via physical characteristics. However, a cursory glance of the face, eyes, or skin of any individual does not define that individual. His strengths, his potential, and the value of his laughter and drive are also found in every cell, but not possible to read on a blood test.
My own son, upon release of his first storybook for children, was asked recently how important it is, as an author with Down syndrome, that he published a book. He answered, "It [Down syndrome] has nothing to do with the book." We can see this in your work, too. Your passion and abilities are about you, first and foremost.
That said, as a public figure, your presence in the media has surely been the precursor to seeing more and more actors with Down syndrome in mainstream and independent films. All of these actors are part of raising the public consciousness of the potential of their neighbors, friends, and students with different abilities. Plus, seeing "someone like me" in media is a powerful motivator for people to follow their own dreams, whatever they may be.
3) True Advocacy. The best advocacy a person can do for himself is to be true to his own potential. It's science, people! All humans have potential and that, you and many others have proven, comes alongside any "diagnosis." You have advocated via acting, speaking, traveling with your own band, and at events as small as the neighborhood picnic. In fact, again, it all comes back to lesson No. 1. The best advocacy is to live a life that is true to yourself and do what you love.
Thank You, Chris Burke, for teaching the world, but most of all, Happy Birthday! And Congratulations on a job well done!