2022 Brand of the Year: A re-education courtesy of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society

Through its research and community the non-profit uncovers stereotypes and shuts them down.

AnythingButSorryThis story was originally published in the 2022 fall issue of strategy. 

How do you peel back layers of misconceptions about a marginalized community? For The Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS), it’s about re-educating a population and dismantling falsehoods, one by one.

In the last few years, marketing for the Calgary-based non-profit advocacy group has been driven by research, determining the societal biases that exist in the minds of Canadians so they can be addressed head-on. “Our best research comes from talking to Canadians with Down syndrome and their families,” says Laura Lachance, executive director at CDSS. “They tell us that they continue to encounter many obstacles to inclusion in society.”

Those barriers are based on outdated thinking about individuals with Down syndrome: that they’re incapable of holding jobs or can only work in the service industry, that they’re unable to live in their own homes or participate in romantic relationships, or unwelcome in the LGBTQIA community.

In addition to polling those with Down syndrome and their families, CDSS also conducts formal large-scale studies to capture perceptions in the general population. It helps shape CDSS’s internal campaigns and those created in partnership with its agency, FCB. CDSS also enlists PR agency Glossy to help boost awareness and reach. “Our projects and campaigns are purposeful and bold. We align ourselves with agencies and groups that mirror those characteristics,” says Lachance of their partners.

Based on its research, from 2016 to 2019, CDSS’s campaigns focused on answering Google’s most-asked questions from parents who were expecting a child with Down syndrome (“Down Syndrome Answers”), educating people on how to congratulate a couple who’s expecting a child with Down syndrome (“Anything but Sorry”), the realities of underfunded support programs, high unemployment rates, housing issues and stigmas faced by those with Down syndrome (“Endangered Syndrome”), and working with Google to make voice technology more accessible (“Project Understood”).

CDSS’s education-based campaigns have gotten the marketing world talking, with top prizes awarded at AToMiC, One Show, Cannes Lions, Clios and others.

In 2021, CDSS released “MindSets,” a pivotal campaign driven by research that may change lives. The non-profit partnered with Anglia Ruskin University and BrainHQ to launch a global research study that collected data examining the effects of physical exercise on individuals with Down syndrome. (Historically, the area has been a sticking point, with general wisdom saying it wasn’t recommended for the community.) With 200 eligible participants recruited, it’s the first-ever statistically significant research to be conducted on this subject. While the data is still being processed, the study will eventually help shape advances in the connection between fitness and cognitive therapies for people with Down syndrome. The resulting campaign garnered 180M media impressions and 1.6M video views across social media channels.

Though societal winds are generally shifting to that of more inclusivity, Lachance notes that those with intellectual disabilities are still at the bottom of the list. “Across Canada, many children with Down syndrome are included and considered able in their own way during school years,” she says. “But upon graduation, they become ‘disabled’ again, labelled collectively as not having the ability to fully participate in society.”

CDSS's "Love Means..." depicts people with Down syndrome engaging in a variety of types of relationships.

CDSS’s “Love Means…” depicts people with Down syndrome engaging in a variety of types of relationships.

CDSS’s 2022 campaign, “Love Means…” aims to change that. It tackles the adult issue of relationships in those with Down syndrome. In the photo series, curated by photographer Hilary Gauld, depictions of love are brought to the forefront. “Love within the Down syndrome community is seldom shown. So, to change perceptions, we launched the intimate and informative series that shows the many ways love exists for people with Down syndrome,” says Lachance.

The campaign highlights a variety of relationships from romantic, to platonic and same-sex. “Right now, there is an overwhelming lack of awareness and understanding about the complete lives that people with Down syndrome live, and about the range of emotions they experience. This work was created to change the public narrative,” she says. “Love Means…” has been reaching the public by way of social media and PR outreach, methods of which have earned the campaign over 81,000 social media engagements as of September 2022.

But stigma and misconceptions aren’t the only factors CDSS has been tackling. The pandemic and uncertain economic conditions have resulted in a decrease in donations, as is the case across the entire non-profit sector, according to Lachance. “Individuals with Down syndrome have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, particularly by social isolation and a disruption of regular routines,” she says. “It has been challenging for many.”

Lachance plans to change those economics through fund development. “We need to focus our work to support the strengths of those with Down syndrome and their caregivers,” she says. CDSS relies on social media, email marketing, and paid and sponsored ads to support fundraising efforts – and to share stories about the impact of donor generosity. “This year, we’re placing a stronger emphasis on our monthly giving program, The Connection, which will lead to greater sustainability for CDSS and support important future projects that directly impact the community,” she says.

As CDSS’s education-based campaigns pick up speed and the organization leads the charge in changing public perception, the next hurdle is bringing about change at the federal level. “Many individuals with Down syndrome require some support to live their best lives. Governments must provide an equal distribution of available supports to all who need them,” says Lachance.

When it comes to how much the CDSS has managed to change perceptions, Lachance notes that it’s not easily quantifiable. “Canada has been called a leader, but it is also impacted by larger global movements towards inclusion, acceptance, education and awareness, as other groups promote their own campaigns internationally,” she says.

So, the CDSS will keep finding misconceptions to knock down. Lachance says the organization is planning to tackle employment next. “We want to present the business case for employing those with Down syndrome by demonstrating how they can bring the right skill set to various roles,” she says.

While CDSS has used education as a vehicle to drive change, what matters most are the voices behind it – ensuring they’re heard, acknowledged and respected. Ever an advocate for CDSS’s work, Lachance knows the organization is invaluable to those who need it, offering them a platform to stand on and speak out loud: “We know that, as more people with Down syndrome are raising their own voices and expressing their hopes of living a full life in our society, our campaigns will highlight those aspirations.”