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Dad’s cartoon of teen daughter with Down syndrome celebrates her normalcy
« That’s really the message behind it, » Wills, of Stratford, Connecticut, says of his cartoon. « She’s just Jessica. She’s not ‘Jessica with Down syndrome.’ She’s just Jessica. »
The real-life Jessica is an iPhone-toting sophomore at Stratford High School who takes mostly regular education classes, loves music and sings in the school choir. She is interested in cooking and camping, Shakespeare, and she recently started playing soccer. For the most part, she is seen as just Jessica.
« That’s a difficult thing for many people with special needs to overcome — that sense that they’re different, » said Wills, 59, a psychiatric nurse who works with adults. « All of us want to be considered part of the group. It’s important for Jessica to be, in her words, popular, and to be treated like everybody else. »
Many of the witty cartoons, which were recently featured in a story on The Mighty, are based on real-life events. Starring Jessica and the family’s two cats, they touch on schoolwork, healthy — or not-so-healthy — eating, and teenage themes like body image and love. They also incorporate the household tasks that Wills and his wife, Debi, hope to teach their daughter, like cooking and laundry.
« We use it now as a tool to help her in high school, as she’s learning life skills, » Wills said. « That opens it up to talk about learning how to do things, and how it’s not easy for her, but she can do it just like everybody else. »
For people who don’t have a Jessica in their life, he hopes his drawings will inspire them to look at special-needs children and adults in a brighter light.
« The vision that people have of people like Jessica, and Down syndrome in particular, is that they see something they need to help, someone they need to do something for, » Wills said. « I think things are changing, but we want people to engage special-needs people all the time, and not just once a year when it’s time to volunteer at the Special Olympics. »