Young women with Down syndrome, from model Madeline Stuart to “Born This Way” star and fashion influencer Megan Bomgaars, have been changing the game for inclusive representation in advertising, media and beyond. Among their esteemed ranks is Kennedy Garcia, a model and actor who was the first model with Down syndrome to work for American Girl and the clothing brand Justice.
Seeing representation through influencers like Garcia, Stuart and Bomgaars matters for young people with Down syndrome, as Mighty contributor Farah Lyner wrote in her article, “The Importance of Positive Peer Models for Girls With Down Syndrome“:
Now is the perfect time to put images of people with Down syndrome achieving professional success into the mainstream — both to combat stereotypes and to inspire young people with Down syndrome. When we talk about empowering young girls, we often say ‘If they can see it, they can be it.’ This is also, and especially, true of those with disabilities.
Garcia has an impressive resume, which includes modeling for print with companies like American Girl, Aetna and Disney theme parks, commercials, acting on shows such as “This Is Us” and “9-1-1,” dancing in music videos and working with her friends (like the stars of the TV series “Born This Way“) on other projects. Most recently, she was a featured model in the launch of Milly Bobby Brown’s new make-up line, Florence by Mills. Like other young women with Down syndrome, Garcia is proving that outdated stereotypes about Down syndrome are just that — outdated.
Related: Down Syndrome Isn’t Something Terrible
To learn more about what the 15-year-old influencer is up to these days, The Mighty spoke to Garcia and her mom, Renee Garcia, about modeling, what Kennedy hopes to do in the future and why Down syndrome representation is so important.
Here’s what they told us:
Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.
How did you first get into modeling?
Kennedy: I started with small shops (boutiques) and on Zulily and got lots of cute clothes, then American Girl found me.
You were the first model with Down syndrome to work for American Girl and Justice. How does it feel to be first?
Kennedy: Pretty cool. Both those jobs were so fun and I got to model with MacKenzie Ziegler for Justice. I made so many new friends.
What have been some of your favorite jobs so far and why?
Kennedy: I think the music video (Sisterhood Anthem “Ooh Child”) because I got to dance, and the movie I was in with Cristina from “Born This Way.” I got to play the young Beth and she got to play the older Beth (“Help” – student film).
Why is Down syndrome representation so important in media, advertising and everywhere else?
Kennedy: I hope that people will see that my friends and I are just like them. And I hope they will make friends with people with Down syndrome because we make great friends.
Renee: People with Down syndrome and other disabilities are everywhere. From preschool to high school to the workplace and our neighborhoods, they are part of our communities. Having them represented in the media and advertising is real life. My hope is that it becomes SO normal to have disabilities represented in the media that there will be no need for viral news stories about it. We have come SO far in the last few years and I think it’s becoming more commonplace every day.
Several of the jobs Kennedy has booked over the years such as Disney, Bell Telecommunications (Canada), “This Is Us” and even Denver Fashion Week have called for simply “girls” or “teenagers” or “dancers.” And she has auditioned with her typical peers and booked them. I think that speaks volumes for the strides that both our community and Hollywood are making. My hope is that seeing people with disabilities in the media will spill over to the normalcy of everyday life and will inspire more acceptance, kindness and inclusion in all areas.
How has people’s perception and understanding of Down syndrome changed in the last 15 years?
Renee: On the day Kennedy was born 15 years ago, we were given a very poor prognosis on the quality of her life and future. Thankfully I was able to go home and immediately connect to the Down syndrome community online and the trailblazers who came before us were able to guide me through those first confusing years. They were there again when she was diagnosed with leukemia at age 3, spine surgery at age 4, and when she was 5 as I sued a school district for denying her an appropriate education in her least restrictive environment. I will forever be thankful for the community of moms before me who set Kennedy up for success by fighting for their own children. I hope that I can pay it forward to moms of younger kids now.
As far as outside the Down syndrome community, I feel like progress is being made too. Kennedy is pretty much accepted wherever we go. She and I co-run her Instagram where her followers are made up of lots of different walks of life. It’s been so neat to see the different backgrounds they come from, the support they give her and the questions they ask simply because they want to understand. Most of all they see that she is a pretty typical teen who loves to text her friends, hang out at the mall, make videos on Tik Tok and talk about boys. Ha!
Kennedy also goes into middle and high schools to talk about Down syndrome and how to be friends with people with disabilities. This is something I used to do when she was in elementary school and as she has grown I have slowly backed away and let her tell her own story. Last year alone she spoke to over 50 classrooms and was always well received. The fact that these teachers and schools are even giving her the opportunity to come in and speak shows how much progress has been made in recent years.
What projects do you have coming up next that you’re really looking forward to?
Kennedy: I just filmed a national commercial and did a big print job both coming out next year.
What’s it like being Kennedy’s mom with her busy schedule?
Renee: Sometimes it’s exhausting, but we always have fun! We live in Colorado and she mostly works in Los Angeles. Sometimes an audition request will come in late in the evening for the next afternoon, so we have to decide quickly if we are going to jump in the car and drive. As long as it makes sense, we do it! Thankfully she is homeschooled now so we have the freedom to travel as needed.
Kennedy is also a competitive dancer and dances 6-7 hours a week when we are home. Dance is her first love and will always be part of her life, I imagine. She loves to be on the go but also loves her days of “nothing” when we stay in pajamas and binge on Netflix, or going to a sleepover with a friend. It’s all about balance.
What are your goals and hopes for the future?
Renee: Kennedy has lots of dreams for her own future. She already has her house picked out in Malibu (she better book a HUGE job for this house!) and she wants to get married someday. I just want her to be happy with wherever her life takes her. I have no doubt she will continue to grow into an independent, strong, amazing adult whether she is acting, modeling, going to college, public speaking or finds her passion elsewhere in the workplace. I just hope she continues to live her best life no matter what.
Kennedy: I would really like to be in a TV show like on Disney or Netflix. And maybe have my own makeup line, I don’t know.