Visible Women

Why Sarah Gordy’s MBE is a milestone for women with Down’s syndrome

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Moya Crockett
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The Call the Midwife actress says she was “in tears” when she learned she’d been awarded an MBE for services to the arts and people with disabilities. 

The Queen’s birthday honours list was published earlier this month, and featured women from all walks of life – from actresses to scientists, athletes to charity workers, midwives to entrepreneurs. It also included Call the Midwife actress Sarah Gordy, who was made an MBE for her services to the “arts and people with disabilities”.

It was a significant moment in history, because Gordy, 29, has Down’s syndrome – and until now, no woman with Down’s had ever been awarded an MBE. Now, the actress has described how she felt when she found out she was being given the honour, and shared her advice for other actors with disabilities.

“I was in tears, really, when I first got it,” Gordy said during an appearance on ITV’s Lorraine on Monday morning.

When asked what she would say to people with disabilities who hoped to break into acting, Gordy said that it was important to focus on the person with the condition, rather than the condition itself. “It’s not about disabilities but the person behind it as well, and the same with Down’s syndrome,” she said.

Gordy appeared on the show with her mother Jane, who said that she hoped her daughter’s MBE would inspire young people with disabilities.

“Can you imagine?” she said. “It meant a lot of us because it’s for services to the arts and people with disabilities, and it’s such an inspiration for the little ones coming up.” 

Gordy appeared in season three of Call the Midwife as Sally Harper, a young woman with Down’s syndrome who is sent to an institution by her family. While at the institution, Sally falls in love with – and becomes pregnant by – a man with cerebral palsy.

Over the course of the series, the pair are forced to confront the prejudice towards people with disabilities, particularly the idea of disabled people having sexual relationships, that was commonplace in Fifties England.

Previously, Gordy played Lady Pamela Howard in Upstairs Downstairs, an aristocrat who was shunned by her family for having Down’s syndrome. She’s also an ambassador for Mencap, and has received several awards for her charity and community work for people with disabilities in her hometown of Lewes, East Sussex. 

The significance of Gordy’s MBE, and the heightened profile it gives her as a successful, empowered woman with Down’s syndrome, shouldn’t be underestimated. While things are gradually improving, thanks to the work of people including Gordy, comedian Francesca Martinez and TV presenters Sophie Morgan and Cerrie Burnell, disabled people remain one of the most underrepresented groups in mainstream media and advertising.

It’s still relatively rare to see a disabled person appear in an ad campaign, as an expert on a factual TV show or as a leading character in a film or television series – and recent research shows that just 6.5% of onscreen staff across the five main UK broadcasters (the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky) are disabled, compared to 18% of the total UK population.

Why does this matter? Because increasing the visibility of disabled people in the public eye can have a real impact on attitudes towards disability. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has warned that disabled people are being “increasingly marginalised and shut out of society” as a result of cuts to social care and payments, while research by Scope shows that nearly half (43%) of the British public say they don’t know anyone who’s disabled. 

This lack of contact and communication undoubtedly contributes to the fact that two-thirds of non-disabled people, according to Scope’s research, say they feel awkward talking to people with disabilities. As a result, raising awareness and recognising the contributions of women such as Gordy, who are living active and happy lives and managing fulfilling careers, can help change perceptions of what it means to be disabled. 

She might have made history as the first woman with Down’s syndrome to be awarded an MBE – but we hope she won’t be the last.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: ITV / Lorraine