Karen Gaffney | University of Portland

Karen Gaffney

Famed distance swimmer and Down syndrome activist Karen Gaffney has spent her life showing the world that commitment, determination, and vision are the hallmarks of a well-lived life, not believing false limits imposed by other people’s expectations.

Renowned for her extraordinary exploits as a swimmer (she has swum the English Channel with teammates, swam nine miles across Lake Tahoe, and swam across Lake Champlain and San Francisco Bay, among many other feats), she is also a remarkably eloquent speaker and activist for people with developmental disabilities, and president of the Karen Gaffney Foundation in Portland.

Born in San Jose, Karen earned her high school degree at Portland’s Saint Mary’s Academy in 1997, where she was a member of the Science Club and (naturally) lettered in swimming. She then earned her teacher’s aide certificate at Portland Community College in 2001, and set off on her remarkable career as one of the best-known and revered voices in the world for people with Down syndrome. First as a swimmer, and then as an increasingly eloquent and sought-after speaker (she has given talks in France, Indonesia, and all around America), she has personally changed the way in which our culture sees men and women born with Down syndrome, a chromosomal anomaly that causes developmental disabilities of many kinds and degrees. Roughly one of every 550 babies born in America today have Down syndrome, and screening now allows parents to discover the condition at or before birth; many of the children thus identified are “terminated” before birth, as the euphemism has it, and one of Karen Gaffney’s insistent messages is that this is not merciful at all, but the killing of a being just as capable as anyone else of remarkable deeds, a rich and joyous life, and indeed a unique influence on the world—as she should know.

While she still swims two to three miles a day, and is the president of the Karen Gaffney Foundation, an umbrella for dozens of projects assisting and inspiring people with disabilities, Karen is also an advisor to Exceptional Parent magazine and a much-in-demand speaker nationally and internationally to children and families of people with disabilities.

“My major focus is to advocate for inclusion of people with disabilities in the home, schools, workplace, and community,” she says. “I want to deliver hope and inspiration to kids and their families. I want to change kids’ lives. I want to influence people who do not have Down syndrome to realize we are more like everyone else than we are different. We don’t want to be different. Treat us like you treat your own children. We are your children. Let us do what we can do. Let us lead the lives only we can lead, do the things only we can do. I have done the best I could with what gifts I have. I worked as hard as I could. I wanted to show people that the experts are wrong, and we can do anything.