(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that he was the first intern ever to have been hired by the service. In fact, Vatican Radio has a long history of providing professional internship and training to young and aspiring journalism professionals. We regret the error.)
VATICAN CITY, January 23, 2014 (LifeSiteNews.com) – He’s a new intern employed by Vatican Radio, the author of a book about living with disabilities, an actor and a student in media studies with professional experience in television news and documentary production: it’s hard to imagine why anyone would question Michael Gannon’s worth as a human being. But every year, thousands of children like him are killed simply because they are diagnosed in utero with the same genetic anomaly that he has: a third copy of the 21st chromosome, the cause of Down syndrome.
Michael, 34, from Dublin, and his mother May Gannon, recently met with LifeSiteNews.com (LSN) at the offices of Vatican Radio, where he was completing a two-week internship offered by the multi-lingual broadcaster.
Michael Gannon, who serves as an “ambassador” for Down Syndrome Ireland, describes himself as an activist with a strong interest in media, working to counter the prejudices held by many against those with Down’s and other intellectual disabilities.
“I focus on me, and not on my disability. That’s the reason I did this book, and the reason why I’m here,” he said.
He said he has a message for all those who justify abortion because of Down’s: “Stop looking at Down syndrome and see the person for who they are, what they are, what they do in their lives. I also want to get a message out to the parents, to see their children’s abilities, to reach their potential.”
A ‘fantastic’ internship at the Vatican
The opportunity to work at the Vatican came about from a meeting two years ago when Michael and his mother attended an event in Rome as part of the EU-funded program “My Opinion; My Vote,” run in part by AIPD (Associazione Italiana Persone Down). There they met the English language chief of Vatican Radio, Sean Patrick Lovett, who works with AIPD and was giving a talk.
Michael confronted Lovett, asking him whether Vatican Radio had ever employed a person with Down’s as an intern. Lovett replied that Vatican Radio had never employed someone with Down syndrome and offered him the job.
Lovett told LifeSiteNews, "Vatican Radio has always put great value on fostering positive professional relationships with young journalists. We consider internships a precious investment both for ourselves and for the young people involved. They offer youthful energy, fresh insights, and constantly challenge us to think about what we are doing and how we are doing it - especially with regard to social media."
He added: "Michael Gannon is the first person with Down Syndrome to be offered an internship at Vatican Radio - not because we have any policy of exclusion, but simply because he was the first person with Down Syndrome to request it. His presence and his contribution provided an extraordinarily positive experience which left us all enriched."
Michael said that in his first week he was “a little nervous.”
“When I started, my head was gone blank,” he told LSN. “I didn’t expect it would be going so quick. Then I settled in. They gave me a lot of tours around the departments.”
He said that it didn’t take long before he had got to know the staff and the ropes. “They were very welcoming. They only see me, not my disability.”
After leaving high school, Michael started at college at National University of Ireland, Maynooth, in the Inclusive Learning Initiative program, with four other students with intellectual disabilities. His primary area of interest has been media and he has built an impressive CV, including acting, and writing and publishing his autobiography, titled “Straight up; no sugar.”
“I’m in my final, third year now, in television production,” he said. He said he has never experienced any negative reactions from either the faculty or fellow students at Maynooth. He also said that his parents, brother and sister had all attended university and obtained degrees and diplomas, and neither he nor his family saw any reason why he should not follow suit.
Michael described his experience working at Vatican Radio as “fantastic.” During his time in Rome, he has done technical work in audio production, as well as researched and helped write news stories produced by the English Language Section.
Fight the stigma by employing people with Down's: Mrs. Gannon
Michael has worked closely with Downs Syndrome Ireland, which helped get him national attention and appearances on television and radio programs. During one news talk show, Michael talked about being an ambassador for Downs Syndrome Ireland, and this appearance helped launch him into professional internships.
Mrs. Gannon, a devout Catholic, told LSN, “I think the Holy Spirit is definitely around where Michael is, because there was a producer watching the program that morning. She was impressed by him. He did say [on the radio program] that he wanted to work in television and she contacted him, gave him an interview and that’s how he got the job on Four Live” - a television morning news program with Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE.
LSN asked whether he would prefer to work behind the camera, making media, or in front of the camera, as an advocate. “Now that is one hell of a question,” he said. “I don’t know. I could choose either of them. I think television.” But he said that he is not worried about which direction his professional life is going to take.
“There are very few role models,” Mrs. Gannon said. “Here in Rome, I’ve walked around the city now for two weeks and I haven’t met a person with Down’s syndrome in employment. I’m sure there must be some there, but personally I haven’t come across them. Not in shops, not in restaurants. I know there are some employed, but they are so few and far between.”
She called for pro-life people to “lead by example and employ people with Down’s syndrome, not to use them as advocates, but to have them in their workplaces, just doing ordinary, everyday work.”
That way, she said, “people absorb the idea that it’s OK to have Down’s syndrome. You can live a very good life.”
‘Reach for the stars!’
Mrs. Gannon said that when Michael was born in 1980, “his path was laid out very clearly for him”. “I was told that he would go to a special preschool when he was two and a half. Then he would go to a special school until he was eighteen. And from there he would go into a workshop.”
Little consideration was given to the possibility that Michael might develop his own ideas. “That’s not my life,” he says. “I had loads of ambitions.”
“And it’s really important to facilitate them,” adds his mother. “We could say, ‘Oh, he’s never going to write a book. What a pipe dream.’” Instead, she said, people with children with Down’s should be encouraged to work towards whatever possibilities exist: “Reach for the stars”.
Mrs. Gannon admitted that Michael’s accomplishments have been assisted by “some very lucky breaks,” including forward-looking teachers. When he was born, she said, “we went the traditional route” at first. But a pre-school teacher who implemented Montessori methods, and then a primary school principal who was willing to help Michael go as far as he could, helped him find his potential.
At the “special school” for children with Down’s, she says, “they didn’t believe in teaching reading or writing. So, I decided that the one thing I wanted him to be able to do is read and write. I felt it was a very basic requirement. So I decided Michael would go mainstream.”
Michael himself described his primary and high school experience as “fantastic fun,” particularly the arts programs. “After about five years in that school, I decided to go the acting route.”
Mrs. Gannon said that she and her husband, also called Michael, agreed that the Holy Spirit was watching over Michael. “Every time we needed something for Michael, it came on-stream. The principal of the primary school he went to was a lady who embraced taking him in.”
She recalls the principal asking: “‘Well, is he in a wheelchair? Does he take medication?’ The answer was no. ‘Well, we’ll surely find something for him here.’ And they embraced him.”
Asked whether the family had ever experienced any conflicts or difficulties with officialdom in getting a proper education for Michael, they both answered, “No. No conflicts at all.”
“Even when he was born, the doctor said to me, ‘Well, you never know what this child is going to do’.”
She added that the employees in the special school had told her that Michael would “always be in the ‘moderate’ range of intellectual disability. But what does that mean?”
Michael’s next plans are to “keep writing books,” to keep acting and carry on with media and television work, to “finish up my college” and earn his diploma. He is eager to get back to work as a project leader in a documentary the college is making about the Inclusive Learning Initiative that helped him and four fellow students enter the college, with a production deadline of the last week in September.
“If there’s anything with media, I’m your man. I’m right there,” he said with a smile.