DOWNTOWN — If William Montgomery was born in the 1950s instead of the 1970s, he would most likely not be employed as a grocery clerk, would not have his own apartment in Santa Monica and certainly wouldn’t have his picture displayed in New York’s Times Square.
Montgomery, 37, has Down syndrome, a chromosomal condition that affects one in every 691 babies born in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It was just three decades ago that people with Down syndrome had a life expectancy of 25 years. Today, thanks to advances in medicine, that number has jumped to 60, and with more assistance available and acceptance in society, people like Montgomery are able to live independently and contribute to their communities instead of being locked away in an institution and forgotten.
It was hard to miss them this past Saturday when thousands of people with Down syndrome and their families took over Times Square to take part in the 18th annual New York City Buddy Walk, an opportunity to promote the value, acceptance and inclusion of people with Down syndrome. Buddy Walks will take place in more than 250 cities across the globe in October for Down Syndrome Awareness Month.
“People with Down syndrome have come a long way in recent decades,” said Jordana Stern, communications and social media manager for NDSS. “For a long time people with Down syndrome were institutionalized. Now many live independently and they are included in schools more often and contribute to society in a number of ways.”
William walked with his mother, Joanne Montgomery, and had his picture featured in a video displayed on the News Corporation Sony screen, located in the heart of Times Square. The Santa Monica High School graduate and Whole Foods clerk couldn’t have been more excited to not only board a plane and fly across the country, but also meet new friends that he can share music and movies with. He’s a David Hasselhoff fan, loves the Dodgers, and has practically run out of space on his hard drive from downloading scores of hip-hop, pop and jazz tunes.
“I enjoy meeting all kinds of people,” said William, who is heavily involved in the Special Olympics as a promoter and an athlete, having competed in numerous sports over the years, including soccer, tennis and softball.
He’s disarming and jovial, so much so that while in high school he was able to get along with people from all backgrounds, including those students who some considered to be gang members, Joanne Montgomery said. To hear William tell it, it was as easy as just walking up to them and saying hello. His philosophy is to treat everyone with respect and show kindness. When his mother mentioned a story about a teen boy with Down syndrome who was reportedly kicked out of first class for being a “flight risk” earlier this month, he shakes his head and looks down at his hands.
“That’s just wrong,” William said. “You shouldn’t treat people like that.”
While he is aware that he is different from others because of his condition, William doesn’t let that affect him. That’s clear when watching him at work. Whether it’s cleaning displays or packing someone’s groceries, he takes pride in what he does and is always offering to help customers and make conversation. He’s also pretty talented when it comes to spotting celebrities who shop in his store.
“He recognizes everybody,” said Lucia Ramirez, customer service team leader at the Whole Foods on Fifth Street in Downtown. “He always like ‘Hey, do you know who is here?’ I don’t see them, but he’s right on it.”
Ramirez has worked with William for the past eight years and sees the happiness in his eyes.
“He seems to always be smiling, he’s very helpful and very passionate,” she said. “When something new rolls out, whether it’s something on sale or only at this location, or maybe it’s a donation drive, he’ll let you know.”
When William was diagnosed, it was difficult for Joanne to accept at first. She wasn’t an older woman, (the incidence of births of children with Down syndrome increases with the age of the mother), was in good health and didn’t experience any complications.
“It’s just something that you don’t think will happen to you, and then it does,” she said. “I was shocked. But we accepted it and decided to push forward. There have been ups and downs, for sure. It can be very challenging, but that’s just life.”
Joanne made the decision early on to integrate William into schools and community groups like the YMCA so that he could socialize and make friends. From a progressive pre-school to Samohi, William has always learned alongside those without Down syndrome and has flourished. The Montgomerys took advantage of services that helped William set up his own apartment, balance his checkbook and pay bills, something which he still finds difficult but he’s working on it.
The National Down Syndrome Society is fighting to make sure that people like William can access those services. The organization is lobbying for the passage of the ABLE (Achieve a Better Life Experience) Act, which will allow families to save money for their disabled children without penalty.
“Right now if you have Down syndrome and you have too much money saved, you don’t qualify for certain benefits, which is really a problem. With all the advancements in medical care, people are living longer and legislation hasn’t quite caught up.”
William cannot work full-time at Whole Foods, even though he would like to, because he would make too much money to qualify for help, Joanne said.
“I really do consider William to be a part of this new generation, this first generation of people with Down syndrome who have been allowed to play a role in society, to be contributors and to be accepted.”
While she’s happy William is living on his own, it’s clear that a mother’s instinct has not faded. Joanne can’t help but worry about her son, but William admits he likes the attention. The two act like best friends, which is fitting since she was William’s first, and the list continues to grow.
“You just have to enjoy life,” William said when asked about what keeps him going. “You have to stay positive and be nice to people.”
Simple, but true.
For more information on the Buddy Walk in Los Angeles, scheduled for Nov. 11 at Santa Anita Park, visit dsala.org/buddy_walk.htm