People with disabilities face disproportionately high rates of violent victimization in the United States, according to data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The rate of violent victimization against persons with disabilities (46.2 per 1,000) is about four times higher than people without disabilities (12.3 per 1,000). In an effort to combat these alarming statistics, a Michigan mom founded Down to Defend, a self-defense nonprofit working to arm those living with intellectual and developmental disabilities with empowering safety education and resources to live more protected, fulfilling lives.
Self-Defense Nonprofit Takes a (Mama Bear) Tribe
A mama bear is “a mom who can be cuddly and lovable but also has a ferocious side when it’s necessary to protect her cubs,” as defined by Urban Dictionary. The term is oftentimes humorously applied, but we all know that moms are serious when it comes to protecting their kiddos. Moms fiercely want to protect their children from bruises, broken hearts, illness, bullies and much more. So, when Alicia Mathieu, a mom of three, learned that her middle child would be statistically more likely to be violently victimized (compared to his siblings) because of his disability, she let her inner mama bear roar.
Mathieu learned that her son, Levi, had Down syndrome during the second trimester of her pregnancy. About 5,100 babies with Down syndrome are born in the U.S. each year, making it the most common chromosomal condition. People with Down syndrome have an extra chromosome which, according to the National Down Syndrome Society, can cause intellectual developmental disabilities, as well as low muscle tone, small stature, an upward slant to the eyes and other differing characteristics.
Once Mathieu knew her parenting journey would include Levi’s special needs, she committed to learning as much as possible about living with a disability with the goal to help her son lead a safe, happy life.
“As I started researching, I found all the negativity out there and all the hard truths,” she revealed in an interview with FOX 17. “People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities. And so, that was the one thing that kind of stuck out and had my stomach in knots. I knew that something had to be done,” she professed.
Well, it didn’t take long for this motivated mom to get something done! Levi was just six months old when Mathieu kickstarted the mission of Down to Defend. Aside from providing safety-focused educational tools and resources, the Grand Rapids based organization focuses on hosting in-person self-defense classes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Participants are empowered to practice safety techniques by learning the basics of karate and other self-defense methods. Presently, events are only offered in Michigan but, of course, Mathieu would love to see Down to Defend expand it’s reach.
Self-Defense, Inclusion and Beyond
Participants have said that Down to Defend classes boost their self-confidence and feelings of self-worth. Additional course options are centered on healthy relationships, swim safety and CPR training.
“We started offering scholarships for ISR [Infant Swimming Resource],” Mathieu told AmeriDisability. ISR is nationally recognized as the safest provider of survival swimming lessons for infants and young children. Drowning is a leading cause of death for children, according to the CDC, and risk is heightened for some within the disability community, such as persons with autism, Down syndrome, heart disease and seizure disorders (like epilepsy).
Levi will turn five this summer, and his mama bear has no intention of quieting her protective roar. But, she admits, Down to Defend needs a lot more support to survive and thrive. Driven by her passion, Mathieu often uses her personal funds to cover costs, with additional backing coming from individual donors.
“Currently, we’re struggling with fundraising which we need to keep our classes going. We are looking to partner with other agencies — locally and, hopefully one day, nationwide. But the financial piece has to be there for that to happen,” she explained to AmeriDisability.
Mathieu says working to improve inclusion, including safety for all people, is worth every penny. “That’s really all we want to do is educate and advocate,” she summarized in the FOX news segment. “Those are our two main focuses and just to keep everyone safe.”
It’s safe to assume that fellow mama bears (and papa bears and allies) echo that heartfelt intention. Down to Defend most recently launched a ‘celebration basket’ program to gift to parents who welcome a baby with Down syndrome (in the Grand Rapids area). To learn more about this generous bundle of joy, or to financially contribute to the cause, visit DownToDefend.org.