Actress Sara Pickard has never let her Down's Syndrome get in her way, living a far fuller life than most adults. LYDIA WHITFIELD caught up with her
"I've always thought, 'I've got Down's Syndrome. So what?'" says 25-year-old Sara Pickard.
"Like the Pink song, I always tell myself, 'So what?' I don't use it as a barrier to anything."
Sara, a community councillor in her village, Pentyrch, has achieved more than most people do in a lifetime. She works for Llanishen-based Mencap Cymru as a Partners in Politics Officer and last year Sara, an accomplished actress, played the star role in Miss Brown To You, a play written for her by emerging South Wales writer Alan Harris, which toured around the UK.
"I was doing a play with Odyssey Theatre, where I played the lead character in House of Wax," says Sara, who lives with dad Mike, headteacher at Blackwood Comprehensive School and mum Shan, a retired PA.
"Alan Harris came to see it and wrote me a part in Miss Brown To You. He had been looking for a woman with Down's Syndrome to suit the part he had in mind. I was really chuffed they were doing this for me and amazed really.
"I initially had to keep it a secret, that I had been offered this part, so that was tough! Mencap gave me eight weeks off work, and I couldn't wait to get started.
"My part was a girl with Down's Syndrome, who was evacuated during the war from London to mid Wales, where she experienced lots of the prejudices of the time.
"There are certain characters in the play who talk down to her. She loves the music of Billie Holiday, and the play's title is one of her songs. I really enjoyed playing her. There's been a huge shift in attitudes since then and one in 10 people have a learning disability.
"Luckily, I've never really met any of the negativity my character did."
Sara was born with Down's Syndrome four weeks early, weighing 4lb 11oz. Her love of acting started when she joined Hilltop Theatre Company.
"I've been with them since 2002 and have been dancing since I was six, so I'm used to performing," says Sara. "I love to dance hip hop, tap, ballet and modern. I go dancing in Pontypridd and also in Pentyrch Village Hall.
"When my dad first spoke to Hilltop Theatre about my joining, the director asked him, 'Can she speak?' He's since told me how I've proved him wrong. With House of Wax, Odyssey were great at providing one-to-one line leading. My line learning has got better and I had the Miss Brown To You script about a year in advance. I would make a good prompter, because I try and learn the other characters' lines too, so when I hear a certain line, I know to say my line.
"My favourite actors and actresses change all the time but I love Julie Andrews and Orlando Bloom. I went to see Sarah Gordy too in Seize The Day at the Millennium Centre. She has Down's Syndrome too and had the main part and was amazing. She was telling me how she's been in soaps like Doctors and Peak Practice too."
Sara left Radyr Comprehensive School after sitting 10 GCSEs and completed a business and secretarial course at Pontypridd College, followed by several secretarial placements, before the post at Mencap became available. After leaving school, her dream was to star on the West End stage, and so she has gone a long way to achieving her ambitions.
"With the job at Mencap, there's a team of three of us with learning disabilities and we do training sessions for young students around Wales and are trying to get them into politics and interested in voting.
"It's a lottery-funded project and our funding runs out towards the end of this year. We're really trying to push for more funding to be able to carry on with the project. We've visited schools with the Assembly Member from that particular area right across Wales, and we do lots of role play to show 15-year-olds, who aren't really interested in politics, how politics is in lots of every day things they do.
"It doesn't bother me at all to speak in front of large groups. I'm used to it through my acting and dancing. My dad is a headteacher, so I think I get my ability for public speaking from him. This Mencap project has really helped me become more interested in politics myself ."
Chatty Sara has several scrapbooks detailing her different achievements; pointing to one and laughing she says: "I look like Darth Vader! My glasses double as sunglasses, so go dark in sunlight."
Sara is one of the trustees of the local Down's Syndrome Association and recently, after a phone call from a new mum of a Down's Syndrome baby, went with her mum to visit them, to offer guidance and reassurance.
Down's Syndrome Awareness Week runs from June 8 and is the association's way of campaigning for high quality information to be given to parents after they have received a prenatal or postnatal diagnosis of Down's Syndrome.
A keen supporter of Liverpool, Manchester United, Newport and Swansea football clubs, Sara seems to have a meeting or activity on most nights and is enjoying making a difference with her work as a community councillor.
"One of my neighbour's mother is partially sighted and when she goes shopping she likes to sit down with her dog," says Sara, whose 22-year-old sister Bethan is a student at the Welsh College of Music and Drama.
"This woman was having trouble seeing where exactly to sit, so I brought it up in a meeting and now there's a bench in Pentyrch with a luminous line around it, which she can use.
"When I started as a councillor, everyone in Mencap thought there would be a proper election and they wanted to campaign for me to get elected, but it was uncontested, so that wasn't necessary.
"I'm the youngest on the council, with lots of retired professionals, but that means I can represent a different group of people in the village. Before starting as a councillor, I tried to do my own research by going along to my old school, Pentyrch Primary, and asking pupils what they liked and disliked about the village.
"Most of them wanted a swimming pool here, which I wasn't sure was very realistic, but we do take everything on board."
South Wales Echo, 27th May 2009