Sally Phillips wants to change the way we talk about Down's Syndrome

11th Apr 18 | Lifestyle

The actress knows first-hand from her son Olly that the stereotypes are not to be believed. Prudence Wade finds out more.

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Sally Phillips is one of the most recognisable faces in British comedy, as co-creator of sketch show Smack The Pony, as well as appearing in big-budget films like Bridget Jones as Shazza.

While her acting career is jam-packed, she also has another full-time job; being the single mum to three young boys. Not only this, but she’s also on a mission to raise awareness around Down’s Syndrome, a condition that her eldest son has.

Sally Phillips
Sally Phillips at the premiere of Bridget Jones’s Baby (Matt Crossick/PA)

What people get wrong about Down’s Syndrome

“The most important misconception about Down’s Syndrome is the idea that living with any kind of disability is incompatible with a happy life,” Phillips explains.

She knows what the reality of living with Down’s is like, as her 13-year-old son Olly has the genetic condition.

Phillips wants us to re-think the language we use to refer to conditions like Down’s. “People say that so-and-so ‘suffers’ from Down’s Syndrome, and they think of Down’s as some kind of disease that you ‘suffer’ from,” she says. “It isn’t a disease, it’s a type of person. Yes, it does involve a learning difficulty and there are a few health things you’re more likely to get, but it’s still mainly a type of personality.”

She mentions the video that went viral recently of mothers of Down’s Syndrome children doing their own carpool karaoke. She says: “I think the lovely thing with that is there’s such a diversity of kids in the video. People say ‘I wouldn’t want a child with Down’s Syndrome, because you don’t know what you’ll get’, but since when were you able to know what you’re going to get with children?

“That’s one of the things that you learn as a parent; to accept someone no matter what. Parenting is unconditional love.”

What Olly is really like

The way Phillips talks about her son Olly completely debunks most of the stereotypes and stories you hear in the media.

“Olly’s relationships and friendships are the most important things in his life,” she says.

But that’s not the only thing that makes him special. Phillips goes on to list some of the things she loves about him: “He really enjoys dancing, and he’s very grateful for everything. If I bring home cake, he’s really the only child who will say thank you without being reminded.

“He loves to laugh, and he tells really appalling jokes. They’re so bad that the fact they’ve been presented as a joke is funny. He makes you realise that jokes are almost nothing to do with the words and all to do with the delivery.”

Advice for other parents

As you can probably imagine from a straight-talking comedian, Phillips is refreshingly honest to chat to. When asked if she has any advice for other parents of children with Down’s Syndrome, she says frankly: “I don’t have any advice for anyone.”

However, she does have a lot to say about how tight-knit the community is. “We’re very strong online,” she explains. “So if you’re not online and you’ve got a child with Down’s Syndrome, we’re an incredibly helpful, loving community. The key is to find other parents online, because there’s lots of great support and information.”

What life is like with her three boys

Olly has two younger brothers – Luke is 10 and Tom is six-years-old. While many people might think that juggling one child with Down’s Syndrome with two others would be difficult, Phillips feels that her situation is a lucky one.

“Tom’s got a lot of social justice,” she explains. “You find a lot of siblings of people with special needs are often very useful to society, in that they do things that involve caring for other people, like becoming doctors, psychotherapists, speech and language therapists, or they work for charities. I can see Tom easily doing that, because he’s very compassionate.”

Sally Phillips
Phillips tends to take on short projects or work in London to be with her kids (Ian West/PA)

Luke, on the other hand, wants to be a fighting nurse, she giggles. “He likes the idea of saving babies and attacking bad guys.”

She says of her three kids: “I love boys, I think they’re so affectionate. They’re quite straightforward – they’ll have a massive fight, and then it’ll be done. Everyone’s biased, but I think I’ve got the sweetest boys in the world.”

Not that it’s all plain sailing. Phillips recently realised she’s missing out on a whole lot by not understanding her boys’ obsession with gaming. “I saw games as the enemy,” she says. “I was always trying to shut down screen time and telling the boys to go play in the mud.”

Phillips learning how to game
Phillips learning how to game (Sassy Productions/Vodafone/PA)

She realised that if you can’t beat them, join them, and recently learned how to game with the help of Vodafone’s #FamilySquad initiative. “It’s a bit of a joke how bad I am,” Phillips laughs. “But at least I now know what’s happening and I can play with them a bit.”

To find out more about Sally’s involvement in Vodafone’s #FamilySquad, click here.

© Press Association 2018

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