In a quaint picturesque town in northern France, lies the city of Arras, located just 50 minutes (by train) from Paris and less than 2-hours from London.
The city is more than 2,000 years old and is perhaps best noted for its giant 13 foot statues draped in colorful folk costumes depicting the town’s colorful history. They are displayed within the tourist office adjacent to the regal Hôtel de Ville, located within the town square.
Several times a year the giant statues are brought out of the tourist office in celebration of the town’s history through a series of town festivals. The statues are held high above the huge crowds which boast a population of nearly 50,000 inhabitants, which can swell twice that number during festival time within the cities neighboring 24 boroughs.
A few winding streets away from the famed hotel, is the Arras City Hall, housing a 35 year old (just elected) city council member by the name of Éléonore Laloux, the first elected official with Down Syndrome.
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The well spoken, petite young woman with the friendly smile greets both locals and tourists alike. She impresses everyone she comes into contact with, displaying a keen sense of humor and a unique perspective.
“I’m a very committed and dynamic person, and I like to be out working with people,” says Ms. Laloux. She’s become a household name in Arras and regularly receives congratulations from locals for her dedication to her work. “I want to fulfill my mandate, be happy, and make other people happy. … I love what I do.”
The outspoken advocate doesn’t shy away from her disability; in fact she embraces it as a testament to what can be achieved, if we desire it. In 2014 Éléonore published her biography, appropriately titled “I Have Down Syndrome, So What?” (“Triso, et alors?”), written in collaboration with journalist Yann Barte.
In it, the no-nonsense young woman narrates her journey from being a frightened young girl navigating through predetermined societal obstacles, to becoming an independent young woman, graduating from a secretarial course she attended with an assistant who supported her in the classroom.
She also devotes a chapter within her book titled “I Am Not Poison.” The chapter addresses a televised debate she participated in along with neurobiologist Jean-Didier Vincent who actually stated during the debate; “Why let people with Down syndrome live when they are poison for their families?”
Eléonore defends not only her right to live, but also to live with dignity, making it clear that they are not toxic citizens. She also denounces the violent and negative discourse about Down syndrome that some doctors employ and defend.
Thus far, the courageous and determined young woman is proving the naysayers wrong. Today Eléonore lives alone, and is financially independent, having also the distinction of being the only public official with Down syndrome to be elected to public office in France.
Working alongside Mayor Frédéric Leturque, Ms. Laloux has utilized her knowledge and her life’s experience, to ensure that inclusion and accessibility is part of the lifestyle afforded to every citizen of Arras, from education to transportation to tourism.
Doctor Pierre-Yves Baudot, a well known sociologist at the University of Paris Dauphine who specializes in politics and disability rights, recently stated; “You can’t have someone in Laloux’s situation and nothing comes of it.”
Adding; “We need more people living with disabilities in political positions who can speak for themselves and say, ‘These are our obstacles to mobility. This is what we need.’ It forces places to enact change.”