Monday, September 22, 2008

ADAPT wraps up Fall 2008 Action

Congratulations to the more than 500 Disability Rights Advocates who were part of ADAPT's 2008 Fall Action. ADAPT is a national grassroots organization that practices civil disobedience to implement the rights of people with disabilities. In cities around the country, including Chicago and Denver, ADAPT is responsible for accessible mainline transportation. Twice a year, ADAPT chapters from around the country participate in National Actions.

The Fall 2008 Action was in Washington D.C. From September 13 - September 18, the advocates practiced various forms of civil disobedience to underscore the housing crisis facing so many people with disabilities. Because of the lack of affordable, accessible and integrated housing, and because of antiquated long-term care systems that force people with disabilities into nursing homes, thousands of people with disabilities find themselves warehoused in institutions or homeless.

Early on the morning of the 15th, the advocates stormed the lawn of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where they set up a tent city they named "DUH" City. Using DUH city as their base, teams of ADAPT members marched off to various Washington locations, occupied the offices of key political leaders, and demanded that Washington recognize ADAPT's housing platform.

Throughout the week, many of the advocates were arrested. Most of them probably didn't get much sleep, or get much hot food. And, most probably made more enemies than friends while they were in Washington. But none of the ADAPTers went to Washington expecting to make friends. They went expecting to start a conversation, without which there would be no change.

For more information about ADAPT, visit

Click here for ADAPT's housing platform.

For a much more detailed account of the ADAPT Action, visit Joe Stromando's blog

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Gold Standard

Though I haven't watched any of the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, I enjoy the print coverage of the events, especially news about the dwarf athletes. At least six little people have participated as members of the United States Team. Between the six, they are competing in table tennis, track & field, and swimming. Most of the media coverage follows the two swimmers who have won medals, Miranda Uhl and Erin Popevich. Uhl has won at least one gold medal and Popevich four. Most of the stories report on Uhl and Popevich as athletes who happen to be dwarfs. Deeper into the games, as Popevich began claiming more medals, some of the media didn't mention dwarfism at all.

To me, coverage of the Paralympic games in Beijing represents what is best about media portrayals of little people. Too often in popular culture, whether the portrayal of dwarfism is positive or negative, the representation of little people is defined by the subject's dwarfism. When this is the case, it’s hard to separate dwarfism from anything the person does, both the accomplishments and the setbacks.

With the Paralympic coverage, Uhl and Popovich, just like all the other competitors in the games, are athletes who have trained their entire lives for the chance to race. Dwarfism is secondary, almost like the home town of an athlete – something to be proud of, but something that takes a back seat to the determination, skill and work that propelled the person so far.

The one bad example I know of came from the Sydney Morning Herald. On September 10, the Herald ran a story titled “Dwarfs rule the pool.” The story is embarrassing, first debating about what language to use to describe dwarf athletes, and then later wondering why other media doesn’t mention dwarfism. At one point, the reporter writes, “The BBC news reports on her, shown on TV in Beijing, made no mention of her achondroplasia, or dwarfism. What a pity. It makes her more interesting, not less.” Then later, “American women, Erin Popovich and Miranda Uhl, have won also gold, but a reporter for The New York Times does not mention their condition in his stories.” The writer suggests that other media is afraid to mention dwarfism, as if that would bring negative attention to the athletes’ stature.

But that’s where the reporter gets it wrong. For the Herald Reporter, just as it is often the case in popular culture, the story was all about the dwarfism. But the real story, as some of the Paralympics media understands, is about the person behind the dwarfism and their accomplishments.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Help Wanted

A modeling agency based in Atlanta, Georgia recently sent a note to a member of Little People of America. The note asked for help soliciting little people to dress up as the infamous movie character "Chucky" from Child's Play, then parade around New York City to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the movie, and the movie's release on DVD.

Casting agencies, production companies and television networks often send requests to various people who are members of Little People of America. Fortunately, many of these requests are opportunities to raise positive awareness about people of short stature. But some requests reflect the antiquated practice of objectifying people of short stature because of their difference in appearance.

Just last year I took a phone call from a business in Florida. The business wanted to hire a little person to greet a traveler at the airport. "Why don't you hire a limo service?" I asked the caller. "Because (the traveler) likes little people," the caller said. Obviously, based upon stereotypical portrayals of people of short stature, the business, or the traveler, found the simple appearance of a little person to be amusing.

Marching around New York City as "Chucky" probably isn't going to help the prejudicial attitudes of the Florida business, or the traveler. In fact, if the modeling agency successfully hires 50 little people, I fear what happened to the filmmaker Steve Delano will become a reality for many more little people. Steve Delano is a little person who made an autobiographical documentary called No Bigger Than a Minute. The documentary chronicles Delano's personal history as a dwarf, and also addresses broader social issues that touch the community. At one point in the film, Delano relates a particularly humiliating experience of a stranger screaming out, "Chucky, Chucky, Chucky!!!" when the stranger saw Delano on a subway platform. Poor Delano wasn't dressed up as Chucky. He was just trying to get somewhere on the train.

Delano relays the story about Chucky and other personal experiences as if he is sharing an inside joke with the audience, because he knows that even if his anecdote is specific only to him, it is an experience to which all people of short stature and their families can relate. It was easy to laugh at Delano's Chucky anecdote, but if more and more people start telling similar stories after the release of the Child's Play DVD, laughing won't be as easy.

All dwarfs have the right to pursue their interests and their needs. That includes the right to earn money portraying the character Chucky on the streets of New York City. But I look forward to the day when modeling agencies and businesses from Florida stop approaching Little People of America in search of dwarf "talent."

Until that day comes, I am proud of LPA members who, instead of ignoring the requests, respond with their concerns. In the case of the Chucky request, several members wrote back. One person wrote, " Can you imagine yourself or one of your colleagues agreeing to do this? Our members (whether persons with dwarfism themselves, or parents of dwarf children) regard such a prospect as dehumanizing, as well as harmful to the dwarfism community’s public image."
Hopefully, if we continue to express our concerns, the inquiries in search of little people to dress up as limo drivers at the airport will decrease, and calls from filmmakers such as Delano in search of little people to tell their stories will increase.