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World's first teacher with Down syndrome discusses never giving up on her dreams - 'I never felt sorry for myself'

A South African school teacher has become the world's first teacher with Down syndrome.

Sheri Brynard has been asked to speak at the United Nations and has met dignitaries and celebrities alike, including Oprah Winfrey.

The international Down syndrome ambassador arrived in Christchurch with her mother, Suzette Brynard, to speak about her experience.

Suzette explained to TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning that the pair had come to New Zealand "to talk to people, to illustrate that it is OK to be a Down syndrome person and to illustrate to people that you can acquire many things and you can do many things if you really want to and really try to do certain things".

Sheri said some of the hurdles she faced while studying for her teaching diploma was failing some of her subjects "again and again, and sometimes again".

"I never gave up - I only tried harder. I believe your only failure [is when] you give up trying.

"I never felt sorry for myself. It is a waste of energy. I am [in] good company. Three presidents of the USA – Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson – all needed some extra time to finish their studies, so who am I to complain?"

Sheri said she would like people to know that life "has no guarantees" but to "never let our circumstances limit our dreams".

"If you want guarantees, buy yourself a kettle. The truth is life has happiness and sadness, but it depends on us on what we do with our lives.

"Success is measured against oneself – never compare you to others," she said. "We must never let our circumstances limit our dreams. Rather, use it to our advantage and don't ever waste time.

"In my life, the elevator to success has been out of order and I have to use the stairs. I have the take one step at a time.

"Without shortcuts, and a lot of hard work, everything worked out for me in the end, so even if it hasn't worked out for you yet, just keep on trying.

"Remember to believe in yourself. If you think you can’t, you can’t. Shoot for the stars and be the best you that you can be today."

Suzette said when Sheri was born in South Africa 37 years ago, people's perception of Down syndrome and other disabilities was "much different from today".

"When Sheri was born, the idea was still to put children who do not fit into the perfect box, which they thought was the perfect box, in institutions," she said, adding that there was "no support", including speech therapy.

Suzette said while some people in South Africa believe that people give birth to children with disabilities because they have sinned, she said the moment she saw Sheri, she "realised that it was such a perfect little baby, looking different from the other babies".

In school, Suzette said Sheri was only allowed to go to school if she blended in with the other students as much as possible.

"So while she was in school", Suzette said, "she knew she had to fit in or leave, and I asked her to please look at what the so-called typical children do, and try to do the same."

Sheri, an assistant teacher in pre-primary classes, said her favourite part of teaching is working at a "special school for learners with learning problems".

"The children accept me as teacher, and they come to me with their problems because they can relate to me," she said. "I cannot have my own children, so the children in my school fill a huge, empty space in my life which hurts me so much."

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Sheri Brynard and her mother Suzette joined Breakfast to talk about living with the disability. Source: Breakfast