Celebrities with Special Needs- Part 3 (Down Syndrome)

Special needs refer to the individual requirements of a person with a mental, emotional, or physical disability.  People with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Down Syndrome, dyslexia, blindness, mental illness, or cystic fibrosis, for example, may be considered to have special needs. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders gives guidelines for clinical diagnosis. 

There are famous people with special needs in nearly every sector of sports, entertainment, politics, and academia. In fact, some of the most brilliant thinkers and artists of our time were diagnosed with special needs, and they’ve gone on to do great things in spite of the odds against them. In this series, we will discuss inspiring celebrities with special needs who won the respect and admiration of millions of people.

In Part 1, we discussed Temple Grandin, an American doctor of animal science and autism activist. In Part 2, we covered Catherine Zeta-Jones and her battle with manic depression. Part 3 will discuss Chris Burke, an actor and Goodwill Ambassador of the American Down Syndrome Society (NDSS).

Part 3: Chris Burke


“It’s not our disabilities, it’s our abilities that count.”- Chris Burke

Christopher Joseph “Chris” Burke was born on August 26, 1965 to Marian Burke, a retired trade-show manager, and Frank Burke, a retired NYPD inspector. Burke has Down syndrome, and his parents were told to institutionalize him when he was born. Instead they decided to raise him at home and nurture his talents, with the help of his two older sisters and brother.

From a young age, Burke enjoyed watching television and movies and desperately wanted to be an actor. He was encouraged by his supportive family to follow his career objectives no matter how unconventional they seemed, especially for a young man with Down syndrome.

In the early 1970s, public schools were not yet mainstreaming students with disabilities into general education classes. Burke attended the Kennedy Child Studies Center in New York City, from age five until graduating shortly before his eighth birthday. He continued his education at specialized schools in Massachusetts. After graduation, he worked as an elevator operator and did volunteer work for programs for students with disabilities at New York City’s Public School 138.

Burke’s first acting performance was in a production of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in high school. He continued to hone his talent by attending acting classes, going to auditions, writing scripts, and reading books about his favorite actors.

Burke got his first professional acting job in 1987 in the ABC TV movie Desperate. Network executives at ABC were impressed by his performance in Desperate that they created Life Goes On with Burke’s character, Charles “Corky” Thacher, as the main role. Corky was the first character in a network television series with Down syndrome. Burke’s revolutionary role conveyed a realistic portrayal of people with Down syndrome and changed the way audiences viewed people with disabilities. Life Goes On ran from 1989-1993 and propelled Burke into fame and wide recognition. He won a Golden Globe in 1990 for his role on Life Goes On.

Since Life Goes On, Burke has made appearances on numerous TV shows and movies including the NBC Movie of the Week Jonathan: The Boy Nobody Wanted, The Commish, Touched by an Angel, The Division and ER.

In 1994, Burke became the Goodwill Ambassador for the National Down Syndrome Society. In this role, he travels the country attending charity walks, makes public appearances, speaks with the press and greets fans. When he is not on the road, Burke is a staff member at the National Down Syndrome Society, working in their New York City office.

Burke has delivered inspirational speeches around the world and continues to speak at schools, seminars, conferences and non-profit organizations. He also tours the U.S. with his four-piece folk band, “Forever Friends”, for which he is the singer. Burke met his bandmates, twin brothers Joe and John DeMasi, when he was a teenager and they were music counselors at a summer program for individuals with disabilities. The band has released several albums and has appeared on television performing their signature song, “Celebrate.”

In 1991, Burke co-wrote his autobiography, A Special Kind of Hero, with Jo Beth McDaniel. From 1994 to 2005 he was the editor-in-chief of “News ‘n Views” and “UpBeat”, publications written by and for people with Down syndrome, and in 2009 he contributed to the National Down Syndrome Society’s “My Great Story” campaign by writing his story, “Great Expectations”.

Do you or a family member have special needs? Twenty million American families have at least one family member with special needs, including my own family. Parents of those with special needs are tasked with planning for their children throughout their lifetime, as many of them will outlive their parents but might not be able to support themselves and live independently.  You want to ensure that your family member with special needs will remain financially secure even when you are no longer there to provide support.  A Special Needs Trust is one type of vehicle that provides funds with which a disabled person can maintain his or her quality of life, while still remaining eligible for needs-based programs that will cover basic health and living expenses. We invite you to make an appointment for a consultation with The Fairfax Elder Law Firm of Evan H. Farr P.C. to learn more about special needs planning.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.