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What this Congresswoman has learned from raising a child with Down Syndrome

Oct 13, 2015

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican representative from Washington, can claim at least one distinct accomplishment among her political peers. With the arrival of her third child, Brynn Catherine Rodgers in November 2013, McMorris Rodgers became the first member of Congress to give birth to three children while serving in the legislature.

While on stage at Fortune's Most Powerful Summit in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, the chair of the House Republican conference discussed her first child, eight-year-old Cole, who was born with Down Syndrome, and what he has taught her.

McMorris Rodgers, 46, found out about the risk of Down Syndrome late in her pregnancy with Cole. During her eight-month checkup, a doctor spotted an abnormal blockage on the ultrasound. "She said, 'As soon as your baby’s born, you’re going to have to go into surgery … and you should also know that one out of three [babies] with this blockage is born with Down Syndrome,'" McMorris Rodgers told the audience. “And they kind of just went through it, but boy, you hear that and [it] registers."

McMorris Rodgers went into labor the very next day. "They couldn’t tell for sure when Cole was born, but three days later after the blood test, it was confirmed that he was born with that extra 21st chromosome," she said. "It’s not the news that you ever think you’re going to receive."

Now, eight years later, McMorris Rodgers says that her son Cole has made her a better person and a better legislator.

"First and foremost," the Congresswoman said, "I’ve been reminded—and I knew this before, but I’m reminded every day—that every person has tremendous potential and has something worth offering. I’m reminded to celebrate every development, every success."

McMorris Rodgers said she's a proud member of the disabilities community—in fact, she founded the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus—because it promotes disabled individuals' potential. "I’m grateful for those who walked this path before me, and the fact that Cole is mainstreamed and that he got early intervention," she said, "but there is more to be done."

McMorris Rodgers says that there should be fewer barriers to employment and more independent living opportunities for people with disabilities. Those individuals need to be "making that transition from school [to work].... Too many end up on the couch watching TV when they’ve gone through our entire school system," she says. "They have higher expectations, so we as a society need to be embracing what they have to offer."

Fortune's Nina Easton asked McMorris Rodgers about the ongoing battle within the Republican party over the selection of the House's next speaker and what she would do to ease that dysfunction if she had the position. "We need positive disruption on Capitol Hill," McMorris Rodgers said, adding the House Republican caucus must reconsider its top-down approach. "Many decisions are made by leadership or committee chairmen, and there is this desire by the members for a more bottom-up approach and to really look at [the] processes—the structure of Congress—and to change it in a way that’s really going to empower the members."

She cited the fact that two-thirds of the House's Republican members have been elected in the last five years, and that those newer members "have come here to do big things." They would like to be "bigger contributors," McMorris Rodgers said, and help solidify the party's vision and develop policy strategies that match it.

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