Sandra McElwee, mom to one of the show's stars, opens up about the challenges her son faced living with Down Syndrome and how the A&E series is changing people's lives.
- Posted on Jul 25, 2016
When A&E debuted Born This Way, the docuseries that follows a group of adults living with Down Syndrome, last December, the show was the first of its kind for the network and for reality TV.
At times both funny and heartbreaking, the show spotlights seven Southern California residents and their families as they pursue their passions, explore friendships and romantic relationships, and defy society's limitations.
Sandra McElwee, mother of cast member Sean McElwee, says she never expected her family’s story to be shared with millions of people across the country.
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” McElwee tells Guideposts.org of the series’ first season.
Now, her son is living the dream he's had ever since he could first talk.
When Sean was just three-years-old, the family visited a local festival where a group of children were performing on stage. Watching the kids sing and dance in front of an audience made a mark on the little boy.
“He looked at me, pointed at the stage and said ‘Me do that,’” McElwee recalls. “That was his first three-word sentence. His speech at the time was totally inarticulate. Most parents would’ve probably said no. ‘You can’t talk, you’re not going to be able to sing,’ but that’s what he wanted to do so we signed him up and he loved it.”
Sean caught the acting bug, snatching up any chance to perform at school, from choir to talent shows. But when he got to high school, things changed. Sean wasn't cast in plays and McElwee eventually filed a civil rights lawsuit against the school as she details in her book, Who's a Slow Learner? A Chronicle of Inclusion and Exclusion. She says it was one of the most difficult things the family has ever gone through. But Sean didn’t give up on his dream of acting despite the obstacles in his path. He took community acting classes and studied acting at a local community college.
“That’s just been his dream,” McElwee says. “He auditioned for so many TV shows, so many commercials; he never got a part, but he never gave up.”
The opportunity to appear on Born This Way came after a casting director visited an acting class Sean was taking through the Down Cinema Acting Association. When he got the callback from A&E, the family felt the show had been put in their path for a reason.
“When they told us it was a show that was going to be following adults with Down syndrome in their day-to-day lives, I thought, ‘All right, God’s got His hand all over this,’” McElwee says.
What resulted was a premiere season beloved by fans, prompting the network to order another round.
In season two, Sean makes a big move. McElwee says, after her son’s name was called from a Housing and Development Waiting list, the family thought it was time to see how he fared on his own. Though not a fan of the idea of a roommate – Sean, who is a concrete thinker, thought the term meant someone would be sharing his actual bedroom – McElwee convinced her son to try living with friend and fellow cast mate Steven for a month.
“I won’t tell you how the roommate situation worked out; whether it was positive or negative,” McElwee laughs. “You’ll have to watch to find out.”
She hopes people can find hope and comfort from the show and a new understanding of an entire community of individuals who are just like you and me.
“The biggest problem people face is fear,” McElwee says. “Fear comes from the unknown. Because of Born This Way, now the world knows seven adults with Down syndrome that they didn’t know before. Any fears that they may have had, my hope is that they may be removed and that more opportunities are available for employment, for friendships and to be a part of the community. That’s my prayer.”
Season two of Born This Way premieres July 26th at 10 p.m. ET on A&E.