How Cate Sayers is building a brighter future for individuals with Down syndrome

Cate and husband Luke Sayers were living and working in Washington DC with their young daughter Claudia when Sayers fell pregnant with their second child. They decided to return home to Melbourne to beclose to family and give their children all the opportunities an Australian upbringing can afford.

When daughter number two arrived safely, in a textbook home birth, the couple were ecstatic and proudly introduced baby Alexandra to the midwife who came to check on her two days later. The ensuing conversation and events that followed are ones Sayers hopes other families will never have to endure.

“The midwife asked to talk to us upstairs, then delivered the news to us: Alle had Down syndrome,” Sayers recalls. “That was obviously met with a lot of distress and kind of disbelief, as you think these bolts of lightning don’t happen to you. We were young, in our 20s, and we didn’t know what it meant. We were just thinking the world was crashing around us. I remember driving to the hospital because Alle had jaundice and had to be put into a humidicrib, and we were so distressed we had to pull over …. [And] while you’re grappling with the emotions and the ‘why’ question, you’re also thrust into this medicalised world of opinions, supposedly superior knowledge, who are all imprinting on you their version of how this will unfold. And if you could rewrite the script it would look completely different.”

Little did Sayers know then the role she would play in doing just that: providing knowledge and support for families and opening up unique opportunities for young Australians with Down syndrome, the most common cause of intellectual disability in which babies are born with an extra chromosome 21.

The couple went on to have two more daughters, Bronte and Lucinda. “We always wanted a table full of pasta-eating babies,” says Sayers with a laugh. “And [after Alle was born] it was further ignited in us to give Alle siblings to be her champions when we were no longer here and to surround her with a circle of love.”

Like any parents, the Sayers wanted all their daughters to have the best start and opportunities they could. Happily, the girls enjoyed the same things: they took swimming lessons together, attended the same kindergarten and would go on to the same primary school, and looked forward to their weekly dance class together. But it was here Sayers began to realise not all opportunities were created equal.

“After three years I could see Alle wasn’t learning in the way I knew she could. She was on the fringe of the class, people weren’t sure how to include her … and she didn’t fit the mould. How can you tell your child: I know you want to continue and you love it, but you can’t belong to that group?”

Over the next six months Sayers searched for a dance school that could cater to Alexandra’s specific needs: a more visual style of teaching that also recognised people with Down syndrome often have lower muscle tone. There was nothing. She contacted Down Syndrome Victoria. Again, nothing. She rang specific instructors, begging them to teach her daughter, but the outcome was the same. Refusing to admit defeat, Sayers took matters into her own hands and decided to open a school herself. “We put the word out to other families, found an awesome dance teacher who importantly knew nothing of Down syndrome and rented a community hall. We started with six kids.”

The response was overwhelming. Within eight months, 40 families were coming from all over Melbourne, eager to take up the opportunity their children had previously been denied: a dance- and fitness-based class that was tailored to their learning needs that also proved highly motivational. An unintended but equally important side-effect was giving parents a network in which they could share experiences and ask questions. At year’s end they borrowed some costumes and staged a casual concert for a 100 family members and friends.

The memory of seeing the children bursting with pride, and the tears of joy on the parents’ faces, is something Sayers will never forget. “I thought: ‘We’ve really changed people’s thinking. Imagine if we could take this out to the community and open up more pathways for these kids, open up more minds, create more opportunities.’”

So she did just that. In 2009, Sayers co-founded e.motion21, a not-for-profit dance and fitness school for children and young adults with Down syndrome. Its motto? ‘Moving bodies, moving boundaries.’ Today, programs are run in nine locations in regional and metropolitan Victoria by three paid employees and 200 volunteers, including Sayers. At least 600 children and their families have benefited from the 40 weekly classes that range from tap to hip-hop, performance and Beat Fit, a class e.motion21 has trademarked that involves drumming on fit balls. The waitlist is long.

“We’d like to do a lot more, because there’s around 15,000 people in Australia living with Down syndrome, seven million globally; and we want to give them the same opportunities to not only be healthy and be able to express themselves but have that sense of success and confidence that’s built through this program,” Sayers says. “But we need to ensure it’s going to be sustainable.”

Research conducted in conjunction with RMIT and Deakin University supports the evidence-based model e.motion21’s methods of teaching are based on. That research has now been presented twice globally, during the 2011 and 2015 triennial World Down Syndrome Congress in South Africa and India respectively. Students from e.motion21 attended and performed in India, affording them an opportunity their parents never thought they’d live to see. The trip was filmed as part of the documentary Raising the Bar and has been screened internationally.

There have been myriad other wins – e.motion21 has partnered with the Australian Ballet School, culminating in a collaborative performance, Breaking Down Barriers; they’ve performed at Parliament House in Canberra at the National Disability Awards; been supported by performers ranging from Jane Kennedy to Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Vanessa Amorosi, and are collaborating with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, integrating their Beat Fit program, resulting intours of schools in regional Victoria this October and culminating in a performance at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in February 2019.

The achievements by Sayers and e.motion21 are profound. But it hasn’t been easy. “It has been incredibly difficult and it continues to be,because it’s a constant struggle,” says Sayers. The organisation receives no government funding, relying instead on the generosity of donors, corporate sponsorship and in-kind support. “There is so much more we’d love to be able to do [but] we’re conscious of keeping costs down, because parents do have a lot of additional financial burdens: increased care responsibilities, medical bills, speech and occupational therapy.”

Of course, it takes a village to raise a child, and Sayers is at pains to point out the incredible support of her family, in particular her other daughters. When the children were younger they were playing at a local park when a child came up and asked why their sister was different. There was confusion among the siblings; unsure to whom she was referring.

“They’ve never seen Alle as different, they just see her as Alle and they’re very proud of that,” Sayers says. “The strength of their relationship is now mirrored in our broader network of friends and their children; whether they’re teenaged boys or girls, they have the same love and respect and care.”

If only society responded the same way. Sayers says that while mainstream education is now open to children with disabilities, that’s where it stops. “They fall off a cliff post-secondary school. Providing dance and fitness programs is crucial to health and wellbeing and social connections, but it isn’t getting them jobs,” she says, pointing out a meagre five to 10 percent of young people with Down syndrome of working age are employed. “That leads to all sorts of mental health issues.”

Again, it has been a case of Sayers and her peers to the rescue. The next step is Impact21, a pioneering education and employment program for young people with intellectual disabilities, delivered in university settings throughout Australia. Employer-driven, the tertiary course will be individualised with a curriculum co-designed by employers, participants, parent and educators. A 2018 pilot program has already secured the support of corporate employers PwC (where husband Lukeis CEO), Dulux, Deakin University, Sodexo and Melbourne University.

“Alle certainly expects to go to uni: she hears her sisters talking about it, and why shouldn’t she?” asks Sayers. “We’re looking to fill the education gap that leads to meaningful employment.”

In Sayers’ grand plan for a changed world society would be a place where people with Down syndrome are included in every facet of life, including further education and employment. “If you could rewrite the script it would look completely different. Maybe it’s not the place you planned to go, but it’s equally beautiful and it’s actually enriching, because you’ve got another huge dimension to your world in your parenting, your friendships, your perspectives, your other children and their friends. And the ripple effect of having a person with Down syndrome in your life is something almost every parent would not change, given the choice. That’s the work we want to achieve through e.motion21: that for every new mum holding that baby it isn’t upsetting or distressing. Because it’s an acknowledgment of the potential this lifeform has, rather than fear and ignorance and lack of understanding.”

You need look no further than Alexandra herself, a child who has grown up with all the care and love and support and, most importantly, the opportunities her peers have had, to understand what Sayers is talking about. A gregarious, happy, confident 15-year-old who is on her local school’s basketball team, speaks Italian and weekly takes part in contemporary dance, hip-hop, jazz, tap, Beat Fit and performance classes, Alexandra’s dreams for the future are the same as anyone’s.

“When I grow up I would like to go to university and study Italian. I’d like to be a mother, and I’d like to work at e.motion21, helping with dancing,” Alexandra says. And why shouldn’t she?

This story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Vogue Australia “How Cate Sayers is building a brighter future for individuals with Down syndrome

A new beginning for Inclusion Foundation!

In late 2020 we were excited to announce our new name, Inclusion Foundation, in recognition of our expanded remit to provide employment pathways to people with Down syndrome.

We are equally excited to launch our new brand, purpose and values.

Since 2009, Inclusion Foundation remains committed to championing inclusion for people with Down syndrome across all levels and aspects of society. We believe it is vitally important for all Australians to meet and understand more about the person behind the disability. As such, to further support our purpose we have created a compelling and enduring brand platform.

We believe we have created an environment that embodies the sense of empowerment, determination and support our organisation presents to thousands of Australians with Down syndrome and their families.

Brand Background

Inclusion Foundation is a for-purpose-charity that champions the inclusion of people with Down Syndrome. Together, we stand proud, we raise our hands in the air, and we to say, “Count me in!” to society, to business, to governments, to everyone, and anyone.

We are proud to introduce Count Me In! as our new tag line. This is a confident statement designed to inspire whilst bringing a hopeful optimism, it promotes positive possibilities. This strong call to action says there is, and should be, a place in society for those with Down syndrome and empowers employers and the broader community to adopt an open mindset. You’ll see this used across our digital platforms and if you don’t already, please be sure to follow us on social media.

Our reimagined look and feel has been designed with a modern and distinctive brand identity. This includes a suite of logos for the Inclusion Foundation, emotion21 and impact21. The brand identity is inspired by chromosome 21 and we believe the brand visually reflects themes of inclusion, positivity, diversity and respect.

Our purpose is simple. We want to change how the world views and values people with Down syndrome. We want to build an inclusive world where people with Down syndrome are equal, active and respected members of society.

We promise to do this through;

  • Engagement with our community and championing inclusion;
  • Empowerment through social inclusion and facilitating greater independence;
  • Education for everyone involved, particularly elevating and inspiring people with Down Syndrome to do more, be more and achieve more; and
  • Energy, positivity and passion to fill a room with infectious spirit and zest for life!

We encourage everyone involved with Inclusion Foundation to embrace and embody our values:

  • Be proud: Whether it is engendering pride in those with Down syndrome or taking pride in striving towards our vision, being proud is critical to all that we are, all that we do, and all that we want to overcome.
  • Act with kindness: Without exception or excuse, kindness is a non-negotiable within the Inclusion Foundation, while a kinder society to those with Down syndrome is a key objective we seek to achieve.
  • Show courage: From dealing with day-today obstacles, to striving to achieve our important goals, our journey is one that needs a lot of courage. The courage to be yourself. The courage to highlight what’s wrong and stand up for what’s right. And the courage to keep going. Always.
  • Open heart and mind: We are a head and heart organisation. Open your heart to others, show empathy and compassion, embrace difference and diversity. But equally, open your mind to new ideas and new ways to do things. Be open to change. Be open to inclusion.
  • See the person, alwaysInside everybody, behind every face, underneath all levels of human ability is a person with a unique story. Understanding and being empathetic to an individual’s story, their abilities, their perspective, and their family, is core to all that we do.

Logo and Identity

Trisomy or Down syndrome occurs when there are three separate copies of chromosome 21 instead of the usual two. With this in mind, the logos and identity have been developed with the theme of three to cohesively unify the brand through colour.

The Inclusion Foundation Brand Family

Inclusion Foundation – Leading the way towards an inclusive future.

Whether you’re a child with Down syndrome, a young person with Down syndrome seeking employment or a parent or carer of someone with Down syndrome, the Inclusion Foundation is here to inspire, empower, campaign and support. In short, the Inclusion Foundation exists to promote inclusion for people with Down syndrome and make sure the broader community understand and value the experiences of people with Down syndrome and their families.

Emotion21 – Moving towards an inclusive future.

Supported and promoted by the Inclusion Foundation, emotion21 provides innovative dance and fitness programmes for children and young adults with Down syndrome. Through performance-based activities and community engagement, emotion21 aims to enhance lives for people with Down syndrome. The benefits of the emotion21 programme are wide-ranging and include health, exercise, social and self-esteem outcomes for participants. These benefits in turn positively impact our student’s families and the community at large.

Impact21 – Working towards an inclusive future.

Supported and promoted by the Inclusion Foundation, the impact21 employment programme is a one-of-a kind work readiness and personal growth programme for early school leavers and adults with Down syndrome. Through impact21, students will gain a customised role in a national company earning award wage. They will have opportunities to increase social and civic inclusion, greater independence, and grow in their work skills and careers.

As we move towards a more inclusive world, we ask you to join us with a courageous heart and count yourself in. We look forward to developing and expanding our reach and encourage you to feel proud of your participation in the journey, knowing every step we take, makes a difference in the lives of those living with Down syndrome, their families, and our community. As we move into this new phase with a refreshed and stronger brand there is really only one thing left to say! “Count me in!”.

#CountMeIn is the call from Corporate Australia as employers partner with Inclusion Foundation

Matthew Foo working in the cafe at DuluxGroup

Inclusion Foundation is excited to announce our 2021 corporate partners for the innovative program Impact21. This unique employer-driven program leads to meaningful and matched employment for Victorian employers and young adults living with Down syndrome and intellectual disability. The program has been co-designed with large-scale employer partners and was launched in 2019. Since then, the program has continued to support not only the worker but also the employer to achieve their diversity and inclusion objectives.

The Impact21 employer partners are SodexoJB H-FiTorrens University AustraliaACMIMelbourne Sports CentresTennis Australia and CVGT. These partnerships are a welcome addition to an already thriving program supporting a diverse workforce that leads to sustainable employment for Impact21 participants.

“ACMI is proud to join the program,” said ACMI Director & CEO Katrina Sedgwick OAM. “Our ACMI 2019-2022 Disability Action Plan was formulated to capture the spirit of our organisational values which include a commitment to inclusion and diversity. Impact21 is a wonderful opportunity to continue putting this commitment to diversity into action”.

The first of the two-year program provides personal and professional skill development in an environment where same aged peers are also studying. Torrens University facilitated this by hosting the program pilot. In 2021, an equitable learning experience in CBD campuses has been realised by the Centre for Adult Education and Torrens University. Program participants engage with employer partners throughout and move into matched employment with on-the-job learning and support.

Earlier this year, Impact21 graduate Matthew Foo (pictured) recommenced work at the DuluxGroup office in Clayton, working closely with the People Services team. Matthew has also recently joined the Ducaf team on a weekly basis working in the café. “Ducaf is the nice place to get a coffee and catch up with friends,” says Matthew who is really enjoying the new opportunity and experience working in the café.

“The Impact21 program facilitates the Tennis Australia inclusion and diversity strategy being implemented in daily practice,” said Craig Tiley, Tennis Australia CEO. “Customised employment allows us to really look at what we need as an organisation, work with the program participants, and understand their skills and interests, to then align for meaningful employment.”

A mere 7 per cent of Australians think people with disabilities are supported “very well”, according to the Australia Talks National Survey 2021. Inclusion Foundation aims to increase this percentage through the Impact21 program with targeted support to participants as well as their employers. Further, according to the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation 48 (2018) 417–431 “the most important factor indicating best practice in employment of people with disability was strong connections with and understanding of disability support networks.”

Inclusion Foundation works to bridge this gap with a long-term goal of creating a world where people with an intellectual disability are equal, active, respected members of society. With less than 5% of working-aged individuals with Down syndrome in open employment, programs such as Impact21 are a shining light for inclusion in the workforce.

Inclusion Foundation is proud to be leading the way to an inclusive future with the innovative program Impact21 and forward-thinking partners.


It’s hard to believe but we are in October already and that means one thing for us – Down Syndrome Awareness Month!

October was first designated as Down Syndrome Awareness Month in the 1980s and has been recognised every year since.

The month is another opportunity to engage the wider community with a simple message – regardless of background, ethnicity, gender or ability, society often overlooks or ignores the obvious fact that behind every human face, is a person. A person who, despite seeing or experiencing the world differently to the rest of us, possess the same feelings, hopes and desires that we all do.

We have a number of exciting activities planned providing fun and active opportunities for all to get involved.

The first of which is a “Bake-a-long”

Inclusion Foundation’s very own Ash Hudson (impact21 Learning Support) is also a professional chef! He has cooked us up our very own Inclusion Foundation cupcake. Everyone can say ‘count me in!’ with this is a recipe that tastes fantastic while being gluten free, dairy free and refined sugar free (You could almost say healthy!!).

Decorate them as you please and have fun, share your results with the community, post to your socials using the hashtags #21yourway #CountMeInCupcake. 

Click here to download the recipe.

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