Interview with Emily Perl-Kingsley

Interview with Emily Perl-Kingsley

Emily Perl-Kingsly is the author of the renowned story Welcome to Holland, which has been an encouraging treasure to families since its creation in the late 1980s. Elizabeth Martins recently talked to Emily to learn more about the story behind the story. 


Welcome to Holland is featured in the book Reasons to Smile: Celebrating People Living with Down Syndrome, available now.


EM: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself—where you’re from, what you do…?


EPK: In 1963, I broke into television doing script research for the CBS series East Side/West Side. In 1970 after a research-booking job on The Dick Cavett Show and a stint as a Talent Coordinator for the 22nd Annual Emmy Awards Show, I joined the Children's Television Workshop as a writer for Sesame Street. I recently retired from 45 years with the show where I wrote scripts, songs, books, and videos (including Elmo Learns to Share, Elmo Says Boo, and several editions of Elmo's World). As the mother of a son living with Down syndrome, Jason, I am a frequent lecturer on that subject. In 1976 I was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Down Syndrome Congress and was chairperson of their Adoption Committee. I served on the Board for nine years. I'm currently the co-chairperson of the Parent Assistance Committee on Down Syndrome of Westchester County and have served as a member of the Westchester County Committee for the Disabled as well as the National Media Council on Disability, a national committee working to improve the ways in which people with disabilities are portrayed in the media. Currently, I serve on the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, helping to encourage people with disabilities in all aspects of the media.


EM: Your short story “Welcome to Holland” which is featured in our book Reasons to Smile: Celebrating People Living with Down Syndrome has touched so many lives. How does it feel knowing your words have impacted so many people?


EPK: It’s humbling and exciting to think about the far-reaching impact that Welcome to Holland has had around the world. I never dreamed that this little “essay” would reach so many people and affect so many lives. I have heard from so many people over the years and it warms my heart to feel that it has been helpful to so many families. I have many books in which Welcome to Holland has been reprinted. It has been printed on t-shirts, aprons, teddy bears, wall plaques, coffee mugs and all sorts of other items. It has been the theme of conferences and has been set to music in many different styles. It’s really amazing. It blows my mind!


EM: Why Holland? Where did this idea come from?


EPK: I’m not sure why Holland. It just fits so nicely. I was sitting at the bedside of a new mom who had just had a baby with Down syndrome and telling her what it was like … when this analogy came tumbling out. When I got home, I thought about it and realized that it “worked” and decided to write it down. Around that time I was writing the screenplay to my CBS-TV Movie KIDS LIKE THESE and decided to use it as the final scene. After that it “went viral,” as they say.


EM: Tell me a little bit about your son Jason. What does he like to do?


EPK: Jason is now 41 years old. He lives in a small group home with two roommates. They have part-time staff who come in the evenings to help the guys with things like dinner preparation, keeping the house clean and neat, transportation to evening events, etc. Jason works at a job in a mailroom, a job he has had for about 18 years. He enjoys his job and loves living with his roommates.


EM: How has raising a song with Down syndrome impacted your life?


EPK: Raising my son has added enormous dimension to my lifedepth and meaning which is impossible to codify in a sentence or two. It gave direction to my life in terms of the awareness of appreciation of human individuality and potential, judging people for who they are and the content of their character, and not superficial characteristics like looks, money, and other shallow achievements.


EM: What do you enjoy doing that helps to nourish your well-being?


EPK: Volunteering with groups that help families who have children with DS or other disabling conditions. I also love to play and listen to music and  belong to various singing groups. I also enjoy the theater and reading.


EM: As a writer for Sesame Street, you included people living with disabilities in the sketches. How did your colleagues react to this? How do you think it shaped the audience’s perception of people living with special needs?


EPK: Inclusion of disability content/curriculum/individuals was the hallmark of my writing for Sesame Street and some of the work of which I’m most proud. I introduced this element to the show back in Season Two and continued it all the way through my entire career. Sesame Street has a proud history of more inclusion than any other children’s show! Feedback has been wonderful and has definitely enhanced the perception of people with disabilities in the media. I only wish other children’s shows had followed suit and done the same. Colleagues were proud and pleased and did the same kind of work as I did. Sesame Street won countless awards for its positive inclusion efforts.


EM: You wrote a made-for-television movie called Kids Like These, which is about a middle-aged couple raising a son with Down syndrome. How much of this was autobiographical? And what message were you seeking to convey through this movie?


EPK: Kids Like These was entirely autobiographical. It was about my family raising my son with DS. It took three years to write. Every single thing in the movie was true and really happenedeither to me or to some other family I knew. It was an attempt to accurately portray the real experience of raising a child with DSboth the joyful and the painful parts.  


EM: You have so many writing accolades behind you, which have inspired so many people. What do you want to accomplish next?


EPK: I would like to do more public speakingto share my experiences and to get out the message that people with disabilities are America’s largest minoritythat they deserve to be included in media representation to a larger extent than they are today. That they are consumers and deserve to be included in advertising and to be considered in legislation and funding.  


EM: There have been so many great strides with featuring people with special needs in the arts and the media. Do you think this trend will continue? Are you happy with how people with special needs are being portrayed, or do you think we can do better?


EPK: We can do bettermuch better.


EM: If you could give parents who have just learned about the diagnosis of their new baby one piece of advice, what would you say?


EPK: Find other families, get good education. Have high expectations. Create lots of opportunities for success. HAVE FUN!


EM: If you could impart one sentence to the world, to people who may or may not have experience knowing someone with a disability, what would you say?


EPK: We are people, just like you. Take the time to get to know us. As my son Jason has said, “when people get to know us, strangers will become our friends.”


04 February 2016


Author of Welcome to Holland

Reasons to Smile is web and book series consisting of inspiring stories, by and about people living with special needs.


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