New spot from Saatchi & Saatchi NY highlights the tough choices facing people with Down syndrome

"Law Syndrome" focuses not on ability, but on the legal restrictions holding back the community.

People with Down syndrome, like many with disabilities, rely on Medicaid for crucial health services, particularly home health care, which few other forms of coverage provide. But Medicaid requires having an income so low that no person with a full-time job would qualify. Marriage, too, disqualifies most people because of combined income. This puts people with Down syndrome in a bind: hold back on life, or lose lifesaving coverage. And it means few companies will hire people with Down syndrome, since such workers are barely allowed to work at all. 

The National Down Syndrome Society calls this Law Syndrome—people with Down syndrome suffer not from a disability but from the way the law treats the condition. A campaign from Saatchi & Saatchi launched last month to bring awareness to the issue. On Thursday, a second spot debuted, illustrating the impact of #lawsyndrome for the people who can change it: Congress and other Capitol Hill power players.

"C21" is the story of a one-night pop-up restaurant in Washington, D.C. staffed entirely by people with Down syndrome (the name refers to the tripled chromosome that causes the condition). The short film is co-produced with Tool of North America and directed by Danielle Levitt. On Oct. 2, NDSS invited dozens of lawmakers and businesspeople to dine at C21 without telling them why they were invited, or what to expect. The night ended with a call to action for the guests to change the laws that prevent people with Down syndrome from, say, working at a restaurant. 


"It’s a demo, a way for people with Down syndrome to show people in Congress all the things they can do," said Javier Campopiano, chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi New York. "And after the experience, many of the [people in the video] said they might want to work in a restaurant one day. And that was beautiful, too—everyone was transformed by the experience."

C21 is the second execution for #lawsyndrome, which began as a series of digital assets and a video explaining the concept, laying the groundwork for an ongoing campaign. Since then, Saatchi has added OOH elements in Washington, D.C. and continued to promote the hashtag on social. "This is different than an awards campaign, or even an awareness campaign about Down syndrome," Campopiano said. "It’s not just about telling people what they can do, but has a specific goal of actually changing a law." (Saatchi has worked in politics before: their 1979 "Labour isn’t working" campaign introduced political advertising to Britain and helped to elect Margaret Thatcher.)

The campaign targets social influencers in addition to legislative ones. In October, NDSS and Saatchi sent out hundreds of kits with a one-pager explaining Law Syndrome that also included products, likes socks, tees and soaps, from businesses owned by people with Down syndrome. "We wanted to show that people with Down syndrome are capable of not just holding amazing jobs but owning their own businesses," said Christine Prins, chief marketing officer at Saatchi NY.

Disability advocates who spoke with Campaign agreed that this tactic is in line with the community’s own advocacy and priorities. Gary and Laurie Osterbach, whose 34-year-old daughter Rachel stars in A&E’s "Born This Way" and works at an insurance agency, have seen the effects firsthand. "Rachel is being penalized because she works hard—it’s not as if her Down syndrome is in remission while she works," they said. "Having Down syndrome is one of her attributes, and it seems rather unfair that her not allowing that to define her, to hold her back, results in her loss of Medicaid benefits." 

Gail Williamson, who runs a talent agency for people with disabilities and has a son with Down syndrome, has worked with several of the C21 staffers. "They mostly want to work, even if it’s going to hurt their Medicaid. Who wouldn’t want to attain their dream of employment and fulfillment?" she said. 

She appreciated that the spot portrayed people with Down syndrome as active, competent participants in their own lives, and hoped legislators would remember that experience when they head back to work. "Having [lawmakers] be part of the event will help them recall the point when they have the opportunity to make a difference."

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