Honorary Doctorate for Sally Phillips for A World Without Down's

A doctorate is usually gained after years of university-based slog, immersing yourself in research, living amongst piles of books and coming up with ground-breaking ideas that might impact on a wider audience.

This week, one of the nation’s funniest comedy actors, Sally Phillips who is currently co-presenting BBC Radio 4’s Museum of Curiosity, had an honorary doctorate bestowed upon her by the School of Social Sciences at the University of East London (UEL).

Sally Phillips receives honorary doctorate for A World Without Down's

In a graduation ceremony on the 1st November at the O2 Arena, Sally, best known for her roles in Jam and Jerusalem, the Bridget Jones films, Alan Partridge and Smack the Pony, joined hundreds of graduating students and their families, but there was one noticeable difference.

Sally was selected for her tireless commitment to advocacy for those with Down’s syndrome. Years of lived experience, immersed in the wonder and challenges of parenting a child with Down’s syndrome replaced more formal academia. In place of dissertations Sally’s work was a new, ground-breaking documentary A World Without Down’s, which made the national sit up, re-think and discuss this genetic condition.

In the documentary, which won the Radio Times Readers' Award for programmes about ethics earlier this year, Sally asked the public what kind of society they want to create, “Surely we want one that is inclusive, welcoming and enriched by people with Down’s syndrome.”

Graduation ceremony for the University of East London at the O2

On collecting her degree Sally told students: “This is fantastic”, but warned; “no matter what you achieve you’ll never be just your grades or your job. Each of you is unique.” She also added that she had been inspired by the late Lord Brian Rix, UEL’s first chancellor who was a committed advocate for his daughter Shelley and others like her with Down’s syndrome.

We’re all used to documentaries that provoke lively debate and prompt us to improve. We’re also used to celebrity voices either presenting or narrating these programmes, and in many ways we have become detached about the lives they feature.

Rare however, is a celebrity who is willing to make herself emotionally vulnerable by sharing her feelings and her family in order to make us think about something close to her heart. The impact however was far greater than a bystander who was not emotionally involved, looking in on our world and commenting from the outside. Sally’s warmth and honesty was what gave the documentary the impact it needed.

As Clare Richards, director of A World Without Down’s put it, “Sally was compelled to make the documentary because she was personally attached to the subject matter. It is no mean feat to lay yourself bare whilst trying to intellectually challenge an audience who might never have thought about that subject matter before. The press and social media outpouring that resulted is testimony to her success. She handled it with wit, fervor and I have the greatest of respect and admiration for her.”

Sally Phillips, quite literally shed sweat and tears to create A World Without Down’s? It took a year of her life and a great deal of personal sacrifices, but she knew she was the ‘famous voice’ our community needed in order to be heard.

When the documentary aired, a furore swirled, it amazed and astonished us all and was mostly fuelled by those who made assumptions about its content without watching, or who had other agendas to push.

But Sally, a kind and selfless person, rode the polarised storm, resolute in her belief that it would help make the world a better place for children like ours, for I too want a world where my daughter will be valued for exactly who she is and all that she contributes to those around her.

Our world with Down's syndrome: Natty, Sally and Olly

A World Without Down’s did exactly that. Because after the dust had settled, those that really mattered were still talking about its contents. Student midwives used it as part of their training, medical students wrote to say how much the film had altered their view and obstetricians proclaimed they would henceforth approach the subject of Down’s syndrome differently and give women more balanced information and less of a doomy prognosis littered with loaded language like ‘co-morbidity’, ‘suffering’ and ‘risk’. 

It made the general public realise that the extra chromosome our littlies possess makes our lives “more of a comedy than a tragedy.”

So, Dr. Sally Phillips, I am so very proud that you have been recognised for the positive impact of A World Without Down’s. From one mum to another, I thank you.

H x

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