Recently, I featured in this column 39-year-old Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), who in 2007 gave birth to a son with Down syndrome. Now age two, Cole is an inquisitive and happy toddler making his presence felt.
McMorris Rodgers is in her third term, Vice Chair of the House Republican Conference, and one of the House’s highest-ranking Republicans. Having Cole has opened up new avenues for her to represent families affected by disability all over the nation.
“I want to tell Cole’s story,” she said in a telephone interview from her Capitol Hill office. “Cole has given me a whole new reason and passion for life right now in Congress.”
Last year, along with others, McMorris Rodgers helped launch the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus, which claims 50 members. The other three founding members were Pete Sessions (R-TX), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), and Patrick Kennedy (D-RI). Sessions and Norton also have children with Down syndrome.
She said, “Cole has opened doors for me to work across the aisle and even in the Senate in ways I could never have done on my own. People are aware of Cole and they often ask me about him and are very supportive. I’ve become acquainted with members of Congress because of Cole.”
She has talked over the telephone with Gov. Sarah Palin, who also has a child with Down syndrome. In their conversation, Palin mentioned having seen McMorris Rodgers’ YouTube video that helped launch the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus.
Overall, nonprofit groups representing people with Down syndrome haven’t been nearly as politically active as groups for people with other disabilities. Historically, Down syndrome groups have focused more on interpersonal support, she said.
“But I think it’s important the Down syndrome community get involved in the national debate over funding for research and educational opportunities,” she said. “A lot of the research with Down syndrome has been focused on prenatal diagnosis. But we believe there is potential for other research. Down syndrome is simply a duplicate No. 21 chromosome. The Alzheimer’s gene is also in the No. 21 chromosome. We believe if we were to study what is happening in that chromosome, the effort could also help adults with Alzheimer’s disease.”
Children with special needs often help families clarify life’s priorities, she added. She wants to do all she can to help Cole maximize his potential.