Rockville couple, documentary highlight struggles of couples with Down syndrome
Silverdocs entry finds real-life match
Rockville couple Bruce Wallace, 32, and Liz Golder-Wallace, 31, can't imagine life without each other.
"It was love at first sight," Wallace said.
"Bruce!" Golder-Wallace exclaimed, embarrassed.
"What? It was!" he said.
But marriage is complicated for this couple. "Married" about five years ago in a commitment ceremony, Wallace and Golder-Wallace were both born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes delays in physical and intellectual development. Daily tasks like shopping and cooking require supervision, and the couple is unable to stay overnight at their apartment without someone in the next room, they said.
Still, the couple has worked hard over the past five years to get to the point they are at today. They rent their own apartment, hold steady jobs, perform in community theater and lead incredibly busy lives.
"All my life, I wanted to live on my own, and now it gets to happen," Wallace said, smiling next to his wife on their burnt orange leather sofa. "... The best part of my life is knowing that we have our strengths, and we have some weaknesses, and we're learning to be advanced independent."
Independence among couples with Down syndrome is a complex issue and filmmaker Alexandra Codina attempted to tackle the topic in her award-winning documentary about a married couple with Down syndrome, "Monica & David," which is showing at the Silverdocs film festival this week in Silver Spring.
In the film, newlyweds Monica and David struggle with the same tasks found daunting by the Rockville couple: cooking, working, driving, wanting a family and trying to declare independence, even when concerned parents know it's not always an option.
"As parents, because we want to protect them so much, we are typically the first ones who treat them poorly by subconsciously denying them their rights to have a normal life," Monica's mother says during an interview in the documentary. In "Monica & David," the couple lives with Monica's mother and trips outside the home without supervision are rare.
Althea Wallace, Bruce's mother, said she could relate to the mother's urge to shelter her child.
"I'm always weighing the over-protectiveness and the letting them have their own life," she said. Golder-Wallace said she struggles to cope with her parents dictating things like what kind of food she should be eating and how often she should go to the gym.
Codina said limitations by outside forces, rather than by the individuals themselves, is at the center of the documentary's theme. Supplementing parental fears, there is also a lack of understanding by the general public, she said.
"Even though things are improving, or have improved, we still have a lot to go in terms of society's openness and awareness of how similar individuals are to Monica and David," she said in a phone interview Tuesday. The job hiring process, in particular, is an area where the public underestimates the abilities of individuals with Down syndrome, she said.
Compared to Monica and David, the Rockville pair said they are more independent. Wallace and Golder-Wallace met in preschool and reconnected in middle school. They've been dating ever since, they said.
They rent their apartment in their own name and pay their own bills, Althea Wallace said. Wallace works two days a week at La Madeleine French café.
"I bus ze tables, I empty ze trash, I do ze everything," he said in his best French accent. One day a week he sets up equipment at Discovery Communications in Silver Spring. Golder-Wallace works mornings at the Kensington Park Branch Library and volunteers with her father for the county government. The couple said they love the location of their apartment and enjoy seeing concerts and outdoor movies in the town square right outside their door.
Autonomous living isn't as easy as it sounds. Their second bedroom is occupied rent-free by someone who keeps his eyes and ears open for any accidents during the night. A separate counselor drops in six nights a week to supervise meal preparation, aid with shopping and provide rides to activities. One night a week, the couple stays with their parents. The couple can legally marry without losing its Developmental Disabilities Administration; benefits, Althea Wallace said. Having children is also out of the question, the couple said.
But, as in the movie, love conquers all. Despite the limitations of their situation, both couples are giddy with excitement over spending the rest of their lives with their significant other.
Judging by the way Golder-Wallace rests her head on her husband's shoulder as they watch "Monica & David," or the way they smile as they read their commitment vows, it's hard to imagine them living any other way.
"Monica & David," directed by Alexandra Codina, screens 8 p.m. June 25 and 11:30 a.m. June 26 at AFI Silver Theatre as a part of the AFI-Discovery Silverdocs Documentary Festival in Silver Spring.