Fred Maahs, Jr:
You’ve probably seen Connor Long, in a movie, or on the Red Carpet, or perhaps on a stage advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. At nearly 27 years old, he’s already made a name for himself in Hollywood and in the lives of countless people with disabilities and their families. Connor is talented, smart, funny, insightful, and he happens to have Down syndrome. I first met Connor and his family when he was being honored for his work as an actor with a disability and as an advocate for people with disabilities during the Annual Convention for The Arc in 2016. The Arc is a national organization here in the United States that provides programs and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In a recent “Zoom” interview with Connor and his father, Brian, we quickly picked up where we left off several years ago – acknowledging the progress that has been made with laws and programs for people with disabilities and recognizing there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Connor was born in Maryland and moved with his family to Colorado when he was 12 years old. He graduated Fairview High School, located in Boulder, with a full diploma in 2012. Connor concedes that while his primary and secondary education was good, “It was a struggle in terms of accessing the standard curriculum classes and succeed in them with appropriate support services.” Connor said that it was hard work for him to keep up with a full course load and it was also hard work for his parents outside of school to make sure he could be in those regular classes.
While he liked all of his classes, his favorites were literature, geology, and algebra. Connor shared that he, “once got a D in Latin but my parents thought it was awesome that I even took Latin and that I liked it!” He continued, “My parents were very proud of my efforts as long as I did my best and that I was a good citizen-student.”
Aside from his schoolwork keeping him very busy, Connor also was an avid athlete. He really enjoyed being on the boy’s swim team for four years and lettered twice! And, outside of school, he enjoyed Special Olympics swimming, soccer, basketball, bowling and bocce. He also enjoys hiking and riding his bike. Connor adds, “For the past seven years, I have ridden in the Courage Classic Tour cycling fundraiser for Down Syndrome research and clinical care programs at the Colorado Children’s Hospital, www.CourageTours.org.”
After high school, he studied acting with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival School of Theatre and he went on to perform with the CenterStage/Tapestry Theatre Company for kids and youths of all abilities. . He also performed with the Phamaly Theatre Company based in Denver, Colorado, which is formed entirely of people with disabilities across the spectrum.
Yes, Connor is an actor with a disability. He lives with Trisomy 21, also known as Down syndrome, Celiac disease, and scoliosis. Connor doesn’t want to be treated any differently than anyone else – he doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him and he certainly doesn’t want people to underestimate him. He just wants to have the same opportunities as everyone else. And he pushes himself to always do better and to do more. While he hasn’t formally gone to college, he has taken a number of non-degree and online certificate classes. Covid isn’t making things easier, but Connor says, “I am enjoying a number of online classes and events, including several arts and acting classes from NYU (New York University).”
As if all of this wasn’t enough to fill is day, when he is at home Connor likes to cook – mostly pasta dishes, play video games, watching cooking, singing, and talent shows, and he likes to watch musical theater and action/adventure movies. I need to hang out with Connor!
I asked Connor when he became an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and what motivated him to do so. Connor replied, “I think I have always been an advocate because my parents became active in Down syndrome, disability, education and inclusion rights after I was born. When my family struggled to achieve appropriate access and services for me, we also did it for others who might face similar challenges. I was awarded the Arc’s Catalyst Self-Advocate award in 2016 and I am proud to be one of the people helping to shape the future. I really enjoy being a speaker and love to keynote at conferences.”
As we continued through our conversation, often filled with approving nods from Brian, Connor told me how he became interested in acting and about his roles AND awards! Connor became interested to be an actor during his youth in Maryland. Participating in church and school plays and then taking some acting classes and going to camp at the BlackRock Center for the Arts in his hometown, Germantown, Maryland. He adds that he “loves Shakespeare and hopes to act with the CSF (Colorado Shakespeare Festival) Professional Company one day!” (We hope so, too!)
Connor’s first role in film was when he played “Radek” in the award-winning short film, “Menschen”, a story by Writer/Director Sarah Lotfi about the Nazi T-4 eradication program during WWII. The T-4 eradication program was an attempt by the Nazi’s to kill children and adults with physical, mental, and intellectual disabilities by placing them in gas chambers disguised to look like shower stalls or by lethal injection. This was one of the worst atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II. Connor played a young man with a disability who was hidden from harm by his mother. He says, “It was a great opportunity to combine my love of acting with the advocacy opportunity of talking about a tragic time in history.” Menschen is available on several major streaming services.
Other film projects include the award-winning short film, “Learning to Drive,” by Writer/Director Roderick E. Stevens. The film was screened and awarded at several disability-themed festivals around the world, including Cannes and Moscow. “I was fortunate to be invited to Moscow to speak at the US Embassy for a cultural exchange program and to receive the Breaking Down Barriers international film-festival’s Best Actor Award.” Another major project was, “Weiner Dog,” a social satire film that premiered at Sundance in which Connor portrayed a young married man living in the community.
More recently Connor was the host for a tongue-in-cheek series of videos on “Disability Etiquette — How to be a good __ for a person with disabilities,” produced by Phamaly Theatre Company in Denver.
With all of these accolades and awards, Connor is recognized as a viable actor in Hollywood. And one award may just stand out above all the rest – The Emmy! Connor says receiving a regional Emmy was not on his bucket list, but he was happy to have earned one, joining his friend and colleague, Hanna Atkinson, in becoming the first known people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to win a regional Emmy award! This opportunity came from a joint between Special Olympics Colorado and Denver’s ABC news affiliate, KMGH/The Denver Channel/Denver ABC7 where he reported just about weekly on the people and programs of Special Olympics Colorado (SOCO). It was a very popular show and grew to cover other events and organizations besides Special Olympics. “We produced about 32 episodes and won the Heartland Emmy for a year-in-review compilation special that covered some the of the project’s most impactful stories.” You can see these episodes on Connor’s YouTube channel.
So, what is Connor working on these days? Well, COVID has impacted everyone but it also opened new opportunities such as qualifying for the US Down Syndrome Swimming national team where Connor hopes to earn a spot on the travel team for international competition. A number of events were canceled, so now Connor is working toward qualifying with the US Down Syndrome Swimming national team for the Down Syndrome International Swimming Organization (DSISO) world championships in Portugal in 2022. The team members across the country meet weekly on Zoom to share exercise tips and to keep in touch.
In the meantime, Connor hopes to find a flexible restaurant job once it is safer post-Covid. He is very interested to attend culinary school and continue studying acting. And, once the weather is warmer, you will find Connor riding his bike and doing physical therapy using telehealth technology. He’s currently participating in a remote exercise research project through the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ (UNLV) Physical Therapy Department. The program will help improve opportunities for adults with Down syndrome to stay active and healthy by participating in intensive workouts three times a week while being monitored for heart rates, respiration, etc.
He also has an essay being published this year in the academic book, “At the Intersection of Disability and Drama: A Critical Anthology of New Plays.” His essay is, “A Performer’s Monologue” and he will be staging and filming a live performance of the essay with the goal of submitting it to film festivals.
Connor and his father strongly believe that actors with disabilities should be cast in roles that call for a person with a disability, not cast by people who only portray people with disabilities. And they also feel that people with disabilities should be cast into roles where “disability” is irrelevant to the story – so, disability is normalized and not “the story.” Both Connor and Brian acknowledge that Jay Ruderman and the RudermanFoundation.org, as well as Respectability.org have made great progress on this front.
Connor has played many different types of characters and someday he hopes to play a Power Ranger! He also hopes that writers and casting agents will be more determined to place people with disabilities in projects so that what is seen in the media better reflects the people who live in our communities, including people with disabilities.
Having a child with a disability presents challenges and opportunities to parents around the world. For Brian, it has given him the opportunity to advocate not only on behalf of Connor, but also on behalf of other parents of children who have disabilities and for the disability community as well. Brian believes that people with disabilities deserve equal opportunities like everyone else and that, “Citizens can make sure they elect public officials who are humble and compassionate for people of all abilities. Government needs to seek out and listen to the lived experiences of real people and not just to politicians and special-interest groups with non-supportive agendas.” We couldn’t agree more.
Fun fact about Connor:
Connor thinks he has British ancestors because he can speak with a “good British accent.” The truth is that Connor does have Irish, French, and British origins and is good with many accents after studying Spanish and Latin in school and listening to German and Dutch on Duolingo plus watching the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings collections!
And finally, Connor concluded our conversation by saying,
“I am here because someone believed in me, in my humanity, my potential, my abilities, and my right not only to exist, but to flourish…as me!”
I enjoyed my entire conversation with Connor and Brian. They are father and son, actor and manager, advocates, and friends. And we are fortunate to have them on the frontlines of standing up for the rights of people with disabilities everywhere. Thank you, Connor and Brian! We cannot wait to see what the future has in store for the both of you.