“It doesn’t matter if you have Down syndrome, as long as you do what you do,” James Martin told the BBC following his historic win at the Academy Awards in Beverly Hills on Sunday night.
On his 31st birthday, he became an Oscar winner – and the first person with Down Syndrome to do it.
Decked out in a suave leopard print suit, the actor couldn’t help but mesmerise the audience when he stood, beaming on the podium, clutching his Oscar as the entire theatre erupted in a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’.
The moving clip of the Belfast’ acting ace’s birthday celebration has gone viral across social media. It’s hard not to find the clip emotional when you consider the enormity of Martin’s achievements. It’s equally powerful and heart-warming:
the guys who made An Irish Goodbye used their Oscar acceptance speech to have every A-lister in Hollywood sing Happy Birthday to their star, James Martin. iconic! pic.twitter.com/J4LLHwMla3
— Spencer Althouse (@SpencerAlthouse) March 13, 2023
“I’m the first person with Down syndrome to win not just a Bafta, but an Oscar… Especially on my birthday, it’s fantastic,” he told the BBC following the star-studded event.
“It doesn’t matter if you have Down syndrome… as long as you do what you do — and I do what I can to be funny.”
The talented actor, who won the award for his starring role in the short film, ‘An Irish Goodbye’, has experienced a rise to fame which can be described as nothing short of meteoric. When James was born, his mother Suzanne, and father, U105 presenter Ivan Martin, were told he would probably never speak. Now, his dad jokes that he “never shuts up”.
After watching James win the Oscar from home in Belfast on Sunday, while his wife attended the awards, he spoke to the local papers and radio stations, clearly elated.
“It’s an amazing feat,” he said. “It’s something that nobody can ever take away from him. When you’re the first to do anything, it’s there for life and that’s how it is with him,” he told BBC radio Ulster, adding:
“So here we are – James not only speaks, once he started speaking he hasn’t shut up since”.
Back in 2014, his father spoke about how James never allowed his disability to hold him back, and surmounted obstacles before him in a remarkable way. A sense of determination was there from a young age.
“I never look at my son James and think ‘There’s James and he has Down’s Syndrome’. I just think “There’s James”. It has always been that way,” dad Ivan said in 2014.
‘He has never let his disability hold him back’
The news that James – the eldest of two sons – had Down Syndrome came as a surprise to the family when he was born.
“He is a very special young man. When he was born and we were told he had Down’s Syndrome we were completely shocked and overwhelmed,” his dad recounted in an interview. “But then the business of having a new baby just took over – James had all the same needs as every other baby.“James is a remarkable young man and I admire him so much. He has never let his disability hold him back”.
At just 31, it seems there is nothing James Martin cannot conquer. The actor has been an ambassador for Mencap, and has also spoken at the European Parliament and to the Stormont Assembly. In 2014, he received a certificate from former NI Justice Minister, David Ford, for his work with barristers and solicitors in teaching them how to work with those with learning difficulties and disabilities.
His talent for broadcasting and acting was something picked up on early by his dad Ivan, who brought James on air with him on Radio Ulster, where he became an easy fan favourite. He got his start in acting when he joined Babosh, a drama group for adults with learning disabilities which meets every Monday night in South Belfast.
The local drama group, which is still attended by Martin every week, were toasting his incredible success on Sunday night. The Group’s co-ordinator, Frances Nelson, praised the actor’s resilience and strength – as well as his dedication and loyality.
She told the Belfast Telegraph that Martin has been given a profile which is “really important to show people he can talk, can act and is every bit as good as everybody else”. She said she hoped his success would be a stepping stone for others to shine, too, adding: “I believe there are quite a few other Jameses out there”.
The Oscar champ’s girlfriend has also been with him every step of the way. Speaking of the magic moment on Sunday evening, she said the breathtaking victory, enjoyed by millions, was “the icing on his birthday cake”.
Childhood sweetheart Barbara Norris has been dating James for 14 years – with the pair still going strong.
“It sends out a positive message to the disability community because it shows society that more people like him should be doing more things like this,” Norris, who also has Down Syndrome, said.
Barbara, who is also a talented performer with a passion for drama, attending the same drama group, said she hopes the Oscar triumph can result in more success for those with disabilities in the arts.
“We knew each other since nursery, we decided to become an item in 2009, he got me involved in Babosh Drama Group, with the Monday night classes, so I’m hoping there will be doors opening for me as much as for him,” she said.
“It sends out a positive message to the disability community because it shows society that more people like him should be doing more things like this, and have greater opportunities, to show that people like us can do them.
“It’s pointing out to society that people who have multi disabilities can be looked upon as actors and actresses, and people can do things like that.”
Succeeding at this level, for anyone, is an astonishing feat, which is only ever preceded by years of hard work and toil, and a kind of persistence that doesn’t flinch. But for Martin, the world is sitting up and taking a special kind of notice – because it’s not just a personal or professional accomplishment, but a dazzling win for disability rights activism and those across the world with Down Syndrome.
There is no doubt that people with disabilities have to work harder, and there is an embedded discrimination in a society which seems to have become more superficial, and increasingly focused on appearance and acceptance. After all, Martin’s victory comes in the context of astounding discrimination against people with Down Syndrome, embedded, but often unnoticed, in Western laws.
I noted Sinn Fein politician Michelle O’Neill was celebrating the win. Sharing an image from Sunday, she tweeted that she hoped the incredible achievement would “inspire a generation of actors and filmmakers”.
But her congratulatory tweet managed to prompt backlash from many over her own voting record. I understand why people were quick to accuse her of “hypocrisy” – given Sinn Fein’s failure to support an amendment to Northern Ireland’s abortion law, which permits abortion past 12 weeks for disabilities, including Down Syndrome. I can understand the backlash, because our culture does appear to have a kind of collective amnesia when it comes to Down Syndrome and other conditions.
A DUP bill, voted on in December 2021, specifically put forward changes to the law to stop abortion for non-fatal disabilities such as Down Syndrome. Assembly members (MLAs) voted by 45 to 42 to reject the principles of the bill after its consideration stage debate – those against it included all of Sinn Féin, some SDLP, Alliance, Ulster Unionist, Green MLAs and People Before Profit.
I suppose the DUP wanted to prevent a situation like the one playing out in the UK. In Britain, the non-fatal condition is the main reason for disability abortion, and parents have spoken out – with their testimonies often sadly falling on deaf ears – about their experiences of feeling pressured into abortion for such a diagnosis.
It looks like that experience is indeed now replicated across Ireland post-Repeal – and at a rapid speed. While we seem to love applauding marketers for using models with Down Syndrome in advertising campaigns, and we enjoy seeing actors with the condition become Hollywood stars, the truth is that there has been a huge shift backwards when it comes to disability rights; we are not as progressive or as accepting as we think we are.
This was made clear for all to see, when, on St Stephen’s Day, Repeal the Eighth advocate The Irish Times, published a front page report revealing that 95% of parents whose babies were diagnosed with Down Syndrome at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin chose abortion.
As pointed out by former First Minister Martin McGuinness’s brother, Declan McGuinness, it seems that it is becoming harder and harder – if not impossible – for people with the condition to make it out of the womb:
Michelle has made hypocrisy into an art form and created the conditions where it's virtually impossible for people like James to make it safely out of the womb. https://t.co/KcQoZzLK0y
— Declan McGuinness (@Declanworld) March 13, 2023
And in our culture, shocking, disparaging remarks are made about those with the chromosomal condition. It’s something which, often, does not shock. Think back to 2021, when Richard Dawkins expressed some dire views on Down Syndrome. The British evolutionist made it clear he does not recognise disabled people as individuals – that rather, they are burdensome, and not as worthy of life as the rest of us.
He drew a very firm line in the sand, when asked what advice he would give to someone who was torn on whether to continue a pregnancy with a baby with the condition, he responded: “Abort it and try again”.
“It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you had the choice,” he said in the painful exchange played out on Twitter.
Frankly, I found it incredible when RTE broadcaster Brendan O’Connor, who has a daughter with the condition, remained so composed when he brought up Dawkins’ remarks. He listened calmly as he heard from Dawkins about how he believed children with the condition would potentially bring about “more suffering” in the world.
Offaly Down Syndrome Association were among those to respond to Dawkins’ comments, with Michael Dunne, a young boy with Down Syndrome, and his mother Mary, refuting the assertions in a tear-jerking response, proving “without any doubt, having Down Syndrome not only increases the happiness in everyday life, but usually makes magic moments”:
Of course, Dawkins is wrong. Parents of those with the condition will tell you that. Those magic moments happen all the time, with one of them being on Sunday night.
James Martin is a prime example of what people with the condition can achieve – and should be encouraged and equipped to achieve. The actor’s success, and talent, and the incredible pride he has brought not only to his family, but to us as a nation, shows that those who hold views like Dawkins – whether in public or in private – couldn’t be more wrong.
People with Down’s Syndrome are capable of living full lives; they are capable of smashing expectations, and proving everyone wrong.
And maybe if those with Down Syndrome are seen as choices society has a right to discard, then that’s not a society we should want to live in.
Whether we have a right to sneer or show collective horror at Dawkins’ comments is another issue. I’m not sure we do, given that our own abortion regime, and the regime in much of the West, actively discourages women from bringing babies with the condition into the world, and means there are so few babies now being born with Down Syndrome. Can we accept that selective abortion is a tragedy?
Aside from James Martin, incredible women have flown the flag for greater understanding and acceptance of the condition too – including the likes of Charlie Fien, Karen Gaffney, and Heidi Crowter.
Last year, 27-year-old Crowter lost her court of appeal challenge over late-term abortions on grounds of serious ‘fatal foetal abnormalities’ – meaning, of course, abnormalities like hers. Meanwhile, Karen Gaffney and Charlie Fien, women who also have the condition, have spoken at events like The All Ireland Rally for Life, shining a light on the worth of others like themselves, and highlighting how disability discrimination has wrought havoc on our society.
Gaffney, the first person with Down Syndrome to complete a relay swim of the English Channel in 2001, champions the journey to full inclusion for those with Down Syndrome in society, schools, and workplaces. Charlie Fien, a lively and memorable speaker who recently got married, has addressed the UN with poise and confidence, with a goal to highlight the importance of full acceptance and inclusion.
When her parents explained her diagnosis to her when she was eight years old, she said she was firmly reluctant to accept it.
“I thought about it a bit,” she recalls, “And said, ‘No, I don’t have it – I have UP syndrome!’ Then I decided it was cool to have Down Syndrome and autism – I have both”.
The journey of James Martin might seem remarkable – but it should not shock us too much. People with Down Syndrome are highly capable, with unique gifts and talents. They enrich and enlarge our society, and as family and friends so often tell us, they do not take anything away.
If we are to take anything from Ireland’s success at the Oscars, maybe it’s this: We are all capable of achieving more than we think – so let’s not put a label or a limit on anyone.