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'Born This Way': Getting real about Down syndrome

In new A&E series, "Real World" producers turn the spotlight on seven young adults with intellectual disabilities and find they're pretty much like everyone else.

From left: Rachel, Sean, Cristina and Steven are four of the stars of A&E's new docu-series "Born This Way," which follows the stories of several young adults with Down syndrome and premieres on Dec. 8, 2015.
From left: Rachel, Sean, Cristina and Steven are four of the stars of A&E's new docu-series "Born This Way," which follows the stories of several young adults with Down syndrome and premieres on Dec. 8, 2015.Read moreAdam Taylor

BORN THIS WAY. 10 tonight, A&E.

Seven young adults with Down syndrome on a "reality" show produced by the people behind MTV's "The Real World": What could possibly go right?

Quite a bit, it turns out, if only because "Born This Way," premiering tonight on A&E, isn't so special that it bypasses the formula of a genre that its stars clearly embrace.

Twenty-six years ago, I became a believer in the power of television to change people's perceptions of disability when ABC's "Life Goes On" premiered with Chris Burke, an actor with Down syndrome, as one of its leads.

A few months earlier, I'd given birth to a son, who, like Burke, had an extra 21st chromosome. "Life Goes On" suggested to us that the full and vibrant life we dreamed of for our son wasn't just some parental delusion.

Frankly, it's hard to remember we ever doubted it.

Which gives us something in common with most of the parents in "Born This Way," people who are unsurprised that their kids have turned into interesting, pop culture-savvy adults with a range of abilities and ambitions as big as, and in some cases no more or less realistic than, their more typical peers.

They drink (though not, at least in the first two episodes, "Jersey Shore"-style), appreciate R-rated movies, hip-hop and "reality" TV, and like most of their generation, seem to be utterly comfortable being videotaped.

And now that they're on television themselves, followed around by cameras and producers eager to turn their romances, spats - and mature-by-TV standards reconciliations - into plot points, they've achieved something that probably too many people their age seem to long for.

They're pretty much all naturals, but none more so than 22-year-old Megan, a dynamic quote machine who jokes that she's Tyler Perry's "future ex-wife" and who's somehow persuaded her mother, Kris, to move them both from Denver to southern California so Megan can pursue her dream of becoming a film producer.

"Don't limit this diva. Because I'm right here," she says.

That she also hopes to eventually pack her mother up and send her back to Colorado alone ("she can visit anytime . . . I don't mind") plays into one of the show's underlying themes, the push-and-pull between people who may be looking for more independence and parents worried about a future for their children that they can't control.

Megan's mother has arranged for her to spend time at a southern California community center where she'll just happen to meet and befriend the show's six other stars - Cristina, Rachel, John, Steven, Sean and Elena - which suggests that Megan's a bit of a ringer and that "Born This Way," which A&E prefers to call a docu-series, is no less manipulated (or interested in entertaining) than most shows of its kind.

It's also not the first: A British web series, "The Specials," followed the adventures of five young people with intellectual disabilities who shared a house and was picked up last year by Oprah Winfrey's OWN.

"Born This Way" producers were thinking about their show before "The Specials" "came into the public awareness," according to an A&E spokeswoman, who said that "the series arose from the passion of executive producer Jon Murray, who has worked tirelessly to put a spotlight on people who have not been featured prominently in television or movies."

I'm not convinced that the ability to live one's life on television is as important to a person with a disability as, say, equal access to education and jobs, but it is something plenty of people, including people with Down syndrome, seem to value.

And the young stars of "Born This Way" have as much a right as anyone to enjoy the ride.


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On Twitter: @elgray