At birth, the doctor told his parents to put him in an institution. It was the 1960s and the community was not equipped to handle children with disabilities. His parents declined and raised him at home along with his other siblings.
At home with his family, he loved watching television shows like Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. From an early age, he dreamed of being on an actor. His parents saw his enthusiasm and encouraged him to pursue this dream.
When he reached school age in the early 1970s, they met with a hurdle. Public schools were not ready to mainstream students with disabilities. His parents found a private boarding school that would give their son the education he needed to pursue his ambition.
Summers were spent back home at a summer camp on Long Island. While there, he met two professional musicians who worked as camp counselors. They introduced him to the love of music which would last for a lifetime.
After graduating from high school, he worked as an elevator operator and spent his spare time doing volunteer work and acting. During this time, he landed a role as a zombie in a reenactment of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. This fueled his love of performance and he continued to pursue his interest through taking night classes and reading up on his favorite actors.
In pursuit of his dream, he started attending auditions. In 1987, he won a role in a TV movie. Based on this performance, the network created a TV show that would center around him as the main character. In the show, his character is determined to be included in the community. It came at a time when the idea of inclusion was just beginning to emerge. That show ran for 4 years and earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
Since the show, he’s played in many TV series and movies. His position as an actor has given him a platform for disability advocacy. He became an ambassador for a well-known non-profit. As an ambassador, he has been able to promote independence and inclusion for people with disabilities. His time is split between doing basic office work and promotional work.
He is also a member of a folk band with the counselors from the summer camp he attended as a teenager. The trio sing songs that promote disability awareness and inclusion. They’ve sold thousands of albums and much of their proceeds have gone to the Very Special Arts, an organization that offers art programs to people with disabilities.
By now, you may have guessed that we are talking about Chris Burke, best known for his role as Corky on the TV show Life Goes On. He is also on the staff of the National Down Syndrome Society as a GoodWill ambassador.
In 1992, Burke co-authored a book about his life. He talks about the different ways that people view him, some with fear, others with pity, some (like his family) with love and friendship. His supporting family helped him realize that Down’s Syndrome did not need to prevent him from pursuing the things that he loves, music and acting.
In a time when exclusion was the norm, Burke’s parents refused to send their child to an institution. Keeping him home with the family gave them the opportunity to recognize his innate ambition and talent. Burke now encourages parents of children with disabilities to support them in their ambitions. He knows the value of a supportive family.
Next month, check back for a story about a man who started as a short, slender lumberjack and became a world renowned athlete.