Student View

Meet Chelsea!

She’s a swimmer. A basketball player. A best friend. She also has Down syndrome. Here’s what she wants you to know about what that means.

Last spring, Choices received an email from Chelsea Bailey, now 18, of East Hartford, Connecticut, saying that she enjoys our magazine. But something’s been bugging her: “I have not seen anything that talks about students like me,” she wrote. “I would like to suggest that an article be written about students with intellectual disabilities and all they can accomplish if given the chance.” Chelsea, with the help of her mom (who did the typing for her), explained that she’s a swimmer, a National Honor Society student, and so much more—and she happens to be a person with Down syndrome.

Down syndrome is a genetic condition, meaning that people who have the syndrome are born with it. Typically, people have 46 chromosomes in each of their cells. People with Down syndrome have 47, and that extra chromosome can cause physical and intellectual differences. But mostly people with Down syndrome are the same as anyone else. They have big dreams—and though they may have to work harder or differently, they can achieve them. If they’d like to, they can work, vote, and go to college.

Turns out, Chelsea was right about Choices lacking coverage of people with Down syndrome in recent years, so we decided to do something about it. On the next few pages, you’ll spend a day with Chelsea and get to know her—the ways in which she’s just like any other high school senior, the ways she’s a little bit different, and what she most wants you to understand about her life with Down syndrome.


Sunday, 5 p.m.:


At her favorite restaurant, Maggie McFly’s, Chelsea is excitedly greeted by the hostess, Andrea, a teammate from her high school swim team. Chelsea swims freestyle as part of an exhibition round at swim meets, meaning her performance isn’t factored into the team’s overall score. But she practices with the school team six days a week, and her coaches and teammates push her as hard as anyone else. “The girls are so encouraging,” Chelsea says. “And being on the team gives me confidence.” She also competes in Special Olympics, a series of competitive sporting events for differently-abled people.

6 p.m.: 

After pasta and cupcakes—both gluten-free, because like many people with Down syndrome, Chelsea has celiac disease (see “A Closer Look” below)—Chelsea and her mom, Diane, and sister, Courtney, 20, head to a nearby bowling alley. With bumpers up on their lane (Chelsea says it’s more fun that way), she bowls in the 80s for two games, laughing and joking with her mom and sister. Courtney wishes more people understood that Chelsea is pretty independent. “That’s a big misconception, that she needs so much help—she doesn’t,” Courtney says.

Courtney has always had Chelsea’s back and helped her cope after their father passed away four years ago. Courtney even broke up with a boyfriend who would get impatient when Chelsea just wanted to hang out. “Some people don’t understand that Chelsea doesn’t always interpret social cues the way everyone else does,” Courtney says.

But being Chelsea’s sister isn’t some kind of hardship: “People think being a sibling of someone with special needs or a disability can be troubling,” Courtney says. “But that’s not necessarily the case.”

7 p.m.:

After bowling, Chelsea heads home to talk on the phone with her friend Amber. “Amber always makes me laugh so hard,” Chelsea says. Then she plays with her dog, Shadow, takes a shower, and gets into bed.

"Chelsea’s more independent than people think. She does her own thing."


Monday, 6 a.m.:

It’s a rainy, gray morning as Chelsea puts on her school’s uniform: khaki pants and a collared shirt with the East Hartford High School hornet logo on the chest. Chelsea is one of just a few students with Down syndrome in her public high school of more than 1,600 kids.

She laces up her sneakers—her small stature, also common to people with Down syndrome (Chelsea is 4 feet 6 inches tall), has her in size 2 shoes. “It can be frustrating to shop for clothes,” Chelsea admits. That didn’t stop her from being in a fashion show at the local outpost of Justice, a national clothing chain, over the weekend, where she modeled some of their new clothes.

7:20 a.m.:

Chelsea gets off the bus and heads to the cafeteria for breakfast—a gluten-free egg sandwich and sausage. Then it’s off to English, one of the few classes where Chelsea is grouped with about 10 other students who have special needs, as well as paraeducators (classroom teaching assistants). Their teacher, Ms. Bonner, is compassionate but firm. Chelsea prefers it that way. “I don’t like when people talk to me like I’m a baby,” she says. She also dislikes people answering questions on her behalf, instead of giving her the extra time she may need to answer for herself.

Singing “New York State of Mind” with friends in chorus.

10:01 a.m.:

History is Chelsea’s favorite class. Today’s focus is the bombing of Japan at the end of World War II. Chelsea and about five other classmates sit on one side of the room with two paraeducators. “I don’t mind sitting separately. I prefer having help nearby,” Chelsea says.

10:55 a.m.:

Lunch! Chelsea chooses a gluten-free chicken parm sandwich and salad, then sits down with friends. Her friend Ashley makes her laugh, coming up behind her and surprising her with a random banana.

11:42 a.m.:

In study hall, paraeducators help Chelsea and her classmates finish a worksheet from history class.

12:33 p.m.:

Math is a lesson on money management, a skill crucial to Chelsea’s independence and confidence. So is cooking, which is why her homeroom class has a unit on learning to cook. Chelsea loves to cook—her latest favorite dishes to make include taco salad and French toast.

1:24 p.m.:

The day ends with perhaps the best class of all: chorus. Chelsea and a few dozen other students sing their hearts out to “New York State of Mind” and “Treasure.” Together, the voices of all the teens form a beautiful melody, a sound that’s richer for its diversity.

3:08 p.m.:

Over a frozen chocolate drink at Dunkin’ Donuts, Chelsea talks about what she wishes people knew about her life. She mentions how hard it is to make friends, both because she can be shy and because people don’t realize she’s just like anyone else. She too has crushes and dreams of going to college. She loves texting, social media, and dancing around in her room to Taylor Swift, Pentatonix, and Justin Bieber. She hopes to someday live with a roommate—maybe her friend Alex or her sister, Courtney, or maybe on her own with her mom nearby. She wants a job helping others, working as a counselor to kids.

Most of all, she wants people to know that, yes, Down syndrome is a big part of who she is—but it’s not all of who she is. Some of her friends, like Alex, have Down syndrome. Others, like her best friend Lauren, who she met in chorus, don’t. And if you’d get to know her yourself, you’d discover that, as Lauren says, “Down syndrome doesn’t define Chelsea—it’s just one part of her. I wouldn’t change her number of chromosomes just like I wouldn’t change her hair color, eye color, or anything else.”

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Skills Sheets (6)
Skills Sheets (6)
Skills Sheets (6)
Skills Sheets (6)
Skills Sheets (6)