Chris Burke, A Successful Singer/actor With Down Syndrome
Have you ever had a conversation with someone suffering from down syndrome? They are some of the nicest people out there and have genuinely kind intentions. Their typical personality traits of kindness, innocence, naivety, are all associated with them. These people are generally perceived to be happy and joyful, in fact, have a very high level of satisfaction in their lives. But as you all may know, life with down syndrome is not easy and everyday tasks are oftentimes beyond the capabilities of people with down syndrome. That is because on average the IQ level of a person with down syndrome is 50, which is equivalent to the mental capacity of an 8-year-old child. With such mental constraints, people suffering from this genetic disorder are bound to live a life of dependency on others and no scope of extraordinary achievements. But this chapter will show you the power of believing and working hard to overcome one’s fear and fulfilling their dreams.
Parents don’t want to bring babies with down syndrome in the world and experts such as Oxford biologists Richard Dawkins have the opinions that it would be immoral to give birth to a child with down syndrome if parents knew about the condition, because a life with such a disorder would be a terrible thing to inflict on a person. According to statistics in most developed countries, the termination rate for pregnancies that test positive for down syndrome is 80 to 90 percent. But in this chapter will present to you Chris Burke, a man with down syndrome who fought such odds and successfully achieved his goals in life.
Christopher Joseph “Chris” Burke was born on 26th August 1965 in America to Mariam and Frank Burke. He was the youngest of four children and was born with down syndrome. His parents were advised to institutionalize him. In disagreement with the professional advice, Chris’s parents took him home and decided to homeschool him as well as nurture his talents. From very early on Chris was intrigued by television personalities and enjoyed watching TV shows and movies as well as musical groups. His interest develops in television and from an early age he desired to perform on screen. Fortunately, his family was very supported and encouraged young Chris to pursue his passions and dreams despite they were too far-fetched for someone like Chris.
When it came time to admit him in a school, Chris was faced with his first major obstacle. Back in the early 1970s the American public schools were not yet inculcating the special needs of differently-abled students in their curriculum and therefore Chris had to make a compromise and attend the general education classes. Yet, Chris was happy as ever and grateful for the opportunity to attend school and make new friends.
Unfortunately, Chris could not keep up with the pace of other students and has to graduate at the age of 8. Since there were no capable private institutions and educational programs for students with ‘disabilities’ in the area, in the fall of 1973, Chris’s parents had to transfer Chris to the Cardinal Cushing Training Center in Hanover, Massachusetts. Over the next few years, Chris was transferred between different Institutions before graduating. Despite the uncertainties present during his educational journey, Chris kept up with his passion of becoming an actor all this while and took part in acting gigs. Apart from his passion one of Chris’s favorite hobbies was music, which he enjoyed listening to and practiced different instruments.
His first acting performance was in the production of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ at the Cardinal Cushing School. His performance had quite a dramatic effect on the audience. Hollywood producer Robert Evans who happened to be in the theater was also impressed by Chris’s performance. The positive response gave Chris the confidence to further his acting performances and he continued to be inspired by his television idols. He took another go at acting at another school and performed as a zombie for the recreation of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. He kept practicing and perfecting his craft by attending night classes, going to auditions, reading books on acting and writing scripts.
Soon after graduation in 1986, Chris began doing volunteer work for programs for special children. His loving nature and amiable behavior soon made him the most likable admin member amongst his colleagues as well as the students he catered to. To support himself financially he started working as an elevator operator. Here I must remind you that Chris was suffering from a disorder that significantly hindered his potential even in mundane everyday tasks. His low IQ often led to him embarrassing himself due to being unable to act accordingly in a situation. In the 1970s there wasn’t much awareness about equality and there was less focus on the rights of disabled people which is why they were victims of hate and discrimination. Chris had to face rude and discriminatory behaviors every now and then. People hurled derogatory terms at him as if he was less-than-human.
His below average intellect coupled with everyone sidelining him meant that he was never going to have a successful career, let alone become a famous actor. But Chris did not care nor understood the odds he was fighting against, all he did know was that he wanted to act and that is where he put all his efforts. Owing to his efforts, Chris landed his first professional acting job in 1987 in the ABC TV movie “Desperate”. Chris made quite an impression on the executives through his skills. They decided to create “Life Goes On” with Burke’s character as the main protagonist.
Life Goes On was one of the few shows that portrayed differently abled people as the main character and attempted to portray their lives. Burke’s excellent portrayal of people with down syndrome conveyed a realistic portrayal of people with down syndrome and changed the way people perceived people with disabilities. Due to the far-reaching effect of this show beyond the purposes of entertainment, this show is said to have revolutionized the portrayal of differently abled people. The positive feedback and popularity of the show also propelled Burke into worldwide fame and recognition. The series ran from 1989-1993.
Chris was not only a good actor but had a charming personality. Whoever he met, he had them groaning with the pain of laughter and awful puns. Everyone instantly grew to like him. Moreover, Chris destigmatized the perception of people with down syndrome and paved a path for their inclusivity in the community. That was also one of the primary aims of the show. The show aimed at showing a family trying to mainstreaming and their son played by Chris, Charles “Corky” Thatcher, who had down syndrome.
Chris commented decades later about the significance of the show in mainstreaming the real lives of people like him and disproving the limited scope through which people with down syndrome are looked at, he said “Back in those days, a parent looked at the disability and didn’t see the ability,” he recalls. “Life Goes On showed that people with a disability can be included. Just give them a chance and let them learn. That’s what the show was trying to teach.” The series ended with Corky landing a job as an usher at a local movie theater and had a girlfriend who suffered from down syndrome and whom he later married.
Chris himself noted following things about his character, ‘Corky is the one who never gives up. I never gave up. He faces obstacles and he couldn’t always reach his goals. But he tries to reach his dreams. Corky is an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. He is a true inspiration, but he doesn’t know that he’s an inspiration.’ Since Corky was loosely based on Chris, therefore, the abovementioned attributes were also present in Chris. In fact, Corky had many qualities that Chris was famous for amongst his family and friends.
It has been reportedly said that there’s something different about Chris, something in his eyes that makes you care. And he was able to evoke those emotions amongst the audience which is why he was the first actor with his condition to play a regular role in a prime-time series and receive critical acclaim.
The popularity from the show piqued everyone’s interest in Chris’s real life, various authors and magazine writer spent time with Chris, his family, and friends, to gather more insight into someone like him. Chris eventually had many magazine articles and a book called ‘A Special Kind of Hero’ written about him.
When Chris was born, the doctors suggested that he be institutionalized and in 1965 a renown minister wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that people with down syndrome, which was then called “mongolism”, should be euthanized as these people would have no quality of life. This was also a time when “baby mongoloids” weren’t even given the same medical care and attention that normal infants received.
Chris proved how wrong they were by his dedication and commitment to his craft. Despite being born in an era when people with his condition were deemed unworthy of the privileges a normal person gets in this world.
This was just the beginning for Chris. After years of practicing as an actor in theatres and taking many acting classes with no reward, Chris had gotten his big break as Corky. Now that he had become famous, there were no more obstacles in his path to stardom. Chris went on to act in numerous other TV shows and movies. Subsequent to Life Goes On, one of his most prominent roles was in Jonathan: The Boy Nobody Wanted in 1992, a TV movie inspired by a true story concerning a landmark legal decision[ for rights of the disabled. Moving on, he went on to act in different genres of TV entertainment such as:
- North and South, Book III: Heaven & Hell, miniseries, 1994
- Commish TV series, 1994
- The Promised Land TV series, 1997
- Touched by an Angel recurring as Taylor, an angel who has Down syndrome, 1997
- The Division, 2002
- ER, 2002
In his 40s, Chris had realized his lifelong dream of becoming an actor. He had received critical acclaim for his performance and was even nominated for two golden globe awards in his career. In 1994 Chris started aiming for something beyond his own individual goals by taking initiatives to advocate for the rights of people suffering from down syndrome and inculcating them as working members of society. He started off with his new goal by becoming the goodwill ambassador for National Down Syndrome Society in 1994. As the Goodwill Ambassador, he has traveled the country attending community events such as buddy walks, making public appearances, speaking with the press, insightful sessions with people suffering from down syndrome and meet & greet sessions with his fans. While he stays busy with social events on country tours and when he is not on the road, he is a valued member of the National Down Syndrome Society’s staff playing a key role in their operational activities at their New York City office. To be more specific, he starred in the organization’s public service announcements in 1999 as well as ‘My Great Story’ public awareness campaign with renown actors and tv hosts.
With an abundance of personal experience as someone with down syndrome and the profound insights he gained as an advocate, Chris had plenty to share with the world. His knowledge coupled with his attributes made for a very convincing public figure. So, Chris went on to become a vocal advocate and deliver inspirational speeches around the globe and continues to speak at the school, seminars, and other non-profit organizations.
While he primarily focused on acting as a career, Chris kept up with his musical interests as a hobby. In fact, he still tours the U.S. with his three-piece musical group “Chris Burke with Joe and DeMasi’, of which he is the lead vocalist. He met his bandmates back when he was a teenager and they have released a total of four albums with their debut album ‘lollipops and love songs’ releasing in 1993. His musical endeavors have proved to be decently successful and have gained popularity in the nation. His love for art and expression of emotion is apparent through his craft, be it acting or singing.
Apart from being a successful actor, musician, down syndrome activist, and somewhat of a motivational speaker, Chris has also shown a keen interest in current affairs and entertainment news. From 1994.2005 he was appointed as the editor-in-chief of ‘News ‘n Views’ and ‘UpBeat” publications written by and for the people with down syndrome. Moreover, he co-authored his autobiography “A Special Kind Of Hero” with Jo Beth McDaniel.
To say that Chris’s story is motivational is an understatement. If a person with limited mental and physical capabilities couple with a high risk of heart defects can achieve every single goal of his like through sheer hard work and consistent efforts, then surely, we all can do too!
Exemplary qualities of Chris:
Imagine being born with a medical condition that has a significant impact on your prospects in life. Just the thought of is distressing for all of us, but Chris showed never showed signs of depression or resentment stemming from his condition. In fact, from the get-go, he led his life with a positive attitude and tackled every hurdle, every setback with hope and positivity. He never let his condition bring him down or make him feel like he had lost, instead, he chose to focus on his abilities and urged everyone to do the same. Life is hard for all of us, but for someone like Chris, the setbacks can be especially heart wrenching. It wasn’t that Chris never felt the loss or disappointment, rather, he looked at his failures as a lesson and found alternate ways to achieve his goals.
Finding what you love and dedicating your life to it:
Chris’s formula for a happy life had always been to pursue his passion and further it as a way of life. Be it acting, singing, or various other things from hosting shows to authoring, Chris always earned a living by doing what he was passionate about. His work was honest and from the heart, which is why it gained mainstream success as well as the hearts of his audience.
It seems cliched and a bit redundant telling people to pursue their passion for true happiness but what I want to stress on is the importance of context in this chapter as well as any other success story. Chris didn’t get the privileges that afforded him the opportunity to pursue his interests. He wasn’t born a billionaire’s son who could just go around performing tasteless acts that gathered no one’s interests. In truth, his life was filled with hurdles at every turn and neither was his family rich enough for him to not worry about his own expenses. He caved his own path to success where seemingly there was an abandoned road filled with hurdles and setbacks to no end.
I cannot stress this enough! Hard work and patience are two qualities that if adopted are like a free ticket to a fulfilling life and self-actualization. Many of us are get dismayed by seeing how talented people around us are and we will never be able to excel at anything, but the truth of the matter is that behind every artist, every businessman, every adventurer, and every innovative entrepreneur there is a mountain plethora of failed attempts and sleepless nights and days dedicated to hard work. Same is true for Chris. Even though his colleagues were concerned about his wellbeing and avoided putting him under pressure, he was only limited by his body. His mind on the other end was filled with built up creativity and the drive to achieve that extraordinary.
That was the mindset he dove in within each of his endeavors. He is now in his forties and continues to inspire people as well as live his dream life.