Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Critic for a day

Referring to a character played by an actor of short stature in a brief review of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a new film by Terry Gilliam, , the film critic Anthony Lane wrote "sadly compulsory in any work that flirts with the surreal." At first, I was pleased with the passage, agreeing that often times people of short stature appear in films to deliver a mood, symbolize a dream sequence, or deliver a sight gag. I also thought that perhaps such commentary from an established film critic would help curb stereotypical use of dwarf actors. Without seeing myself the new movie by Gilliam, I have no way of knowing the accuracy of Lane's comment. Perhaps the little person did serve no other role but to indicate the movie is very different from the life experience of the average audience member. But as I thought more about Lane's comment, I wish that he had gone deeper, if only slightly, explaining more about the character. I wanted to know for myself if the character just hung around the movie, with nothing to do but be 'a dwarf,' or if Lane was too quick to judge.

If Lane did judge too quickly, he is not alone. Many little people have made similar assumptions. Last summer, at the National LPA Conference in Brooklyn, I sat on a panel with four actors who are dwarfs. The panel was set up for the actors to speak about their experience navigating Hollywood, the film industry and the theater industry. During the discussion, a few of the actors made a comment about fantasy (aka surreal) roles. The comment opened a new perspective in terms of what I think about roles for little people.

Being that on television, in the movies, and on the internet, the dwarf community continues to be objectified by stereotypical roles that insert dwarf characters as 'punch lines' or as stereotypical representations, the panel was well aware that the acting decisions are sometimes controversial. Historically, a fair percentage of roles for little people have been fantasy type characters -- the elf, the leprechaun, etc.. Today, because of a history of super natural roles, it is easy to categorize the fantasy roles as dwarf stereotypes, because they perpetuate the idea that little people are different from everybody else. This is turn leads to different treatment.

The actors on the panel said they are often criticized for accepting fantasy roles because they reinforce stereotypes. The actors pointed out though that the fantasy characters are often much ambiguous, much more complex, and therefore much more human than the roles available in the so-called realm of realism. If viewed critically, these roles could actually help our efforts as a community to achieve social equality. Sometimes, it is our own stereotypes as viewers that cause us to make snap judgements about a particular role.

Be that as it may, as a community, we should still advocate for more diverse roles for dwarf actors, including roles outside of the traditional little people parts. But just as we, as little people trying to get along in the role, ask the world to judge us based upon our intent, actions and accomplishments, we should not be quick to judge the roles that actors take until we look a little deeper.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A for effort

"My bottle of fizz (soda) was upended and I was drinking as fast as I could. However, it was not fast enough. All but one of the other eight year-old girls standing in the row had emptied their bottle and patiently stood waiting for me to finish. Finally, I swallowed the last mouthful and finished just ahead of one other girl."
Dwarfs Don't Live in Doll Houses -- p. 44

I try to read as many books as I can about people with dwarfism, especially books authored by people with dwarfism. Angela Muir Van Etten's autobiography, Dwarfs Don't Live in Doll Houses is a book I should have read by age 21, but didn't pick up until a few days ago. If I had known the book included a passage about a soda drinking contest, I would have made the effort to read Van Etten's story long ago -- especially considering that each anecdote about which Van Etten writes includes a glimpse at how little people fit into the social fabric of society. Van Etten shares her experience as a young girl growing up in New Zealand in the 1960s but her insights will probably resonate with all people of short stature, no matter where and when they grew up.

About the soda event, Van Etten writes that 12 young girls competed in the competition. The judge awarded three prizes. One for first place, one for last place, and one to Van Etten, who finished second-to-last. Van Etten writes, "It was obvious he wanted me to have a prize, whether I earned it or not." Though, as an eight-year-old, Van Etten coveted the prize (a package of liver salts - something like Tums I guess), she later said, "I was too young to realize that such elevation meant I was not accepted as equal." My guess is that many other little people have had similar experiences.

Freshman year of high school, my baseball coach awarded me the "Most Dedicated Player" award at the end of the season. Though I might have earned the award --I showed up to all the practices and put all my energy into the game each time I played and each practice -- I think my coach gave it to me for the wrong reasons. I think he gave it to me for the same reasons the judge in New Zealand awarded Van Etten a prize. Late in the year, before he gave me the award, the coach sent me to the plate in the final inning of a game. I rarely played in the field. Most often, the coach let me take an at bat when the outcome of the game was already determined.

That day, my turn at the plate lasted about five minutes. I kept fouling off pitch after pitch. One particular pitch late in the at-bat I hit farther than any ball I had hit in my life. My heart raced as I watched it fly but the ball fell just to the left of the left field line, barely foul. A few pitches later, I struck out.

Later, after the team loaded up on the bus and just before we returned to our high school, the coach addressed the team. He stood in the aisle of the bus, looking at us. He was pretty happy. The team was good. We hadn't lost one game all year. The coach went through this litany of things about the game about which he was proud. The final item on the list had to do with me. "I am really happy to see Gary swinging the bat," he said.

I guess it was a nice thing for him to say. But thinking about it now, it seems like his comment fails to account for the fact that I had played organized baseball since I was seven years old. Each year I played baseball, I played on a team with at least eight other team mates. As a team, we wanted to have fun and to learn about what it means to work as a team, but our ultimate goal was to win. As a member of the team, my goal was to help my team win. Striking out didn't help my team win.

My freshman year high school baseball coach wanted to win also. I had no problem with sitting on the bench most games. As I grew older and as my school mates grew older, the gap between our talent levels grew. Each game, the coach fielded the players with the best chance of winning. He did the right thing. With that in mind, I was grateful for every opportunity to play in the field and to take a few swings at the plate. But I wish he had treated me the same as other players. Just like I did late in the year, many of my team mates struck out at the plate that season. But to not one of them did the coach say, "I am happy to see you swinging the bat." He expected them to hit the ball safely. I wish he had expected the same of me.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Better left unsaid

When I joined the Executive Committee of Little People of America, I committed to raising positive awareness around people of short stature and the issues that we face. In the past three and a half years, I've rejected more opportunities to raise awareness than I have pursued. Perhaps that's because, in my opinion, we may have raised awareness about dwarfism, but it may not have been positive.

The latest opportunity came a few weeks ago when producer from Spike TV called and emailed. He told me about a reality program that follows a little person wrestler named Puppet. Long ago, he organized a group of wrestlers called The Bloody Midgets. That group often performed in Chicago. A few years ago, Puppet changed the name of the group to the Half Pint Brawlers. I never learned why Puppet changed the name, but considering that Puppet embraces the word "midget," I doubt the reason was to avoid the wrath of people who scorn the m-word. The producer told me that for the reality show, he wanted to stage a debate between a member of Little People of America and Puppet over use of the m-word. Puppet would argue in favor of the word. LPA would argue in favor of identifying the word midget as derogatory.

Last summer, LPA passed a resolution condemning the word midget, and pledging to raise awareness around language in order to help remove the word from common usage. A nationally televised reality show that features a discussion around use of the m-word is definitely an opportunity to reach thousands of people, and perhaps raise some awareness. Nevertheless, LPA turned down the opportunity for a number of reasons. First of all, the debate would have been filmed on the Mancow Morning Show. "We'll have a car pick you up," the producer told me, (how exciting). I haven't heard much about Mancow since he left Q101 in Chicago, but from what I know, he is a radio personality who raves about free speech. The brand he practices does not give voice to marginalized communities. Instead, he uses free speech as a shield to protect himself when accused of delivering hateful, harmful words. I pictured myself on the air, cowering in a chair as Puppet and Mancow reigned verbals blows upon me for suggesting that the word midget offends some people.

But even if the debate took place on what I believe to be more neutral air waves, it's still probably not a good idea. LPA pledged to raise awareness, not to entertain. Reality shows are designed and produced to entertain. With that in mind, no matter how strong the argument I, or anyone else from LPA would make, the final product on Spike TV would have been all about entertainment, not awareness. Who knows. It might have turned out okay. But I cringe to think about how bad it could be.

So for now, LPA has turned down the offer from Spike TV. In the short run, maybe we'll regret it. Maybe they'll dedicate that episode to verbal slurs against people of short stature. But in the long run, I think we're better off.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Double Take

Yesterday, my wife and I visited with a young man who is a person of short stature, his girlfriend and his mother. We all met at the mother's house, in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Katie had met the young man years ago, and hasn't seen him since. We spent a few hours together, eating a little bit and talking a lot. Mostly, the conversation focused on disability issues.

At one point, I mentioned the piece referred to in the last blog entry, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's Staring: How We Look. Talking about the piece, I said that although Thomson includes people of short stature in her book, the parameters that she develops around why people stare and how they stare don't necessarily apply to people of short stature. Thomson explained that while there are several different types of staring, people who stare normally try to hide their actions. That is, they want to look but they believe staring is rude. So, they try not to let the staree know he or she is being watched. In my experience, people who stare don't always try to hide their actions. Sometimes in fact, the actions of the starer are quite obvious to me and the starer knows this.

After I spoke, Katie made an important point. She said there is a difference between how others look at people with acquired disabilities and people who are born with disabilities. If the disability is acquired, then there is a very human connection between the starer and the staree. The starer looks, and thinks "this could be me." Because of this connection, the starer is sensitive to the impact of his or her gaze, and tries to respect the privacy of the individual he or she is watching. On the other hand, there is no connection with the person who is born with a disability. If a stranger sees a person with dwarfism on the street, the stranger knows that no matter what happens, he or she will never be a dwarf. As a result, the connection between the starer and the staree is less human, which may in turn explain the different types of staring.

Of course, I know plenty of people with acquired disabilities who can share staring anecdotes in which human connection played no part. But I think there is some reality in what Katie said. Whatever the explanations are behind why people stare, the key to eliminating the discomfort that exists as a result of staring has little to do with strategies about how to deal with starers. It has much more to do with raising awareness. The more we can do to raise awareness around human diversity and difference, the better off we all will be, no matter what side of the stare we fall behind.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

How do I look?

It's been said a million times before, but human behavior ebbs and flows. We operate on cycles (in reality my cat operates on cycles also). I am no exception. What controls the cycles I follow is human interaction. Until about a month ago, I had for a long time operated freely and confidently out in public, unconcerned about any attention or stares that my short stature may solicit. In fact, I had been riding such a positive cycle that I believed my internal confidence negated the impulse of any stranger to stare or gawk.

The cycle swung down four weeks ago when the passenger of a car with New York license plates snapped my photo while I was on my bicycle. Since then, rather than a load of confidence, I've been carrying a shield, tentatively ready to defend myself against unsolicited negative behavior from strangers.

Soon after the flow moved downward, I came across a book by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson called Staring: How We Look. The book studies why people stare, divides staring into several categories and includes testimony from the starees. I have not read much of the book. In fact, I only printed out a few pages in hopes of finding testimony from people of short stature, and new coping strategies. Indeed, most of the starees about whom the book speaks are people with disabilities. While the best testimony may not come from people of short stature, one little person reported he often "flips them (starers) the bird," the pages are filled with helpful information. From information that helps explain why people stare, "The visual presence of disability robs the encounter of firm cultural guidelines," to words of empowerment, "stares do not necessarily make one a victim; rather, they can make one a master of social interaction."

Based upon my experience, I am far from a master of social interaction, but I am always trying to learn. During the learning process, it's always nice to find new information and experience new things to move the process forward.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


I heard from a friend who has come up with the idea of creating stickers that say "accessible." She plans to use the stickers on public signs and on public services that use the word handicap. For example, a sign in a parking lot that says handicap parking. The accessible sticker would go over the word handicap. The meaning of the original sign would remain the same and a positive statement about language would be made.

The sticker reminded me of something I'd once planned to do. I wanted to have my own stickers made. I'd carry the stickers with me whenever I rode my bike. If I ever run into cars like the New York plate car mentioned in the previous post, I could grab a sticker and place it on the car's bumper. The problem is coming up with a clear message that, like the "accessible" sticker, sends a positive message and also makes sense to the people who read it. But even if my sticker doesn't carry the perfect message, it'd satisfy me overwhelming need to just do something, anything, when personal space is obstructed the way the car with the New York plate interfered with mine.

As a follow up to the car from New York taking my picture, when the car and the police officer left the scene, I pushed my bike over to the sidewalk. The whole scene took place right in front of a hotel. When it was over, a hotel staffer, he was probably a concierge, asked me, "What happened?" I told him why I tried to get the picture from the people in the car. He asked me a few more questions and listened to my answers before I pushed my bike to the bakery.

Last week, I was back in that part of town, and found myself in front of the same hotel, this time on foot. The hotel staffer I had spoken with a few weeks before was again on duty. "How you doing?" he asked. "I am doing good," I answered. That was the extent of the conversation, but it made me happy. I was glad he took the time to listen to me after the original confrontation. Now, whenever I think about the car from New York, I'll remember something positive.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

bike friendly

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday, I was biking south down the lake path, on my way home. It was a great, sunny day, probably around noon. My one commitment for the day was already complete and I was looking forward to an afternoon of football and food. A few miles north of my apartment, I turned off the path. I wanted to pick up some fresh bread at a bakery in River North. I made my way west from the lake path and turned south on State Street, which would lead me to the bakery. About two blocks from the bakery, a gray mid-size car with New York license plates pulled in front of me. A woman sitting in the back seat stuck her arm out the right side passenger window and took my photo with a digital camera.

After 39 years of living with dwarfism, learning from my family and friends, and sharing with other people with dwarfism, I've integrated some okay strategies for dealing with nearly anything that any of us, whether we have disabilities or not, could encounter in the world. I even have a strategy for dealing with drivers and passengers who take my photo ( see March 24, 2008 entry - sorry I can't come up with fresh blog material). But for me, pictures, especially when I am on my bike, strike a more vulnerable cord. I hate the fact that the car can speed away, leaving me no chance to speak with the perpetrators, and I hate the fact that my photo might be used in some degrading fashion without my permission. While I have a strategy for dealing with this particular type of incident, it can only take me so far.

Even on a Sunday, around noon, when traffic is relatively lite, it's impossible to drive more than a few blocks without hitting a red light. My "strategy" calls for me to confront the picture taker if I can catch up to the car on my bike without endangering my life. In the case of the gray car with the New York plates, it hit a red light immediately. I could have caught up on foot.

When the gray car stopped at the light, I was just a few feet behind it. I pulled in front of the car, stepped off my bike, and stood right up against the car's front bumper (what was that about risking your life?). There were three people in the car. A man and two women. The man was driving. Immediately, he picked his hands off the steering wheel, raised them up a little bit said, "What the F... are you doing?" I don't remember if the windows of the car were open or not. It was a pretty nice day. They probably were open. I do know that I could hear him pretty easily. And I didn't have to shout in order to be heard, which was a good thing. My adrenaline was already pretty active. Shouting might have caused a stroke. I told the driver that I wanted the camera. That was the extent of our dialogue. The driver kept telling me to f'ing move and I kept asking for the camera. At one point, the woman in the back seat, who had taken the photo, held the camera up to the car window and told me she had deleted the photo. Perhaps she did, but I kept asking for the camera.

That the car could have run me over and killed me in an instant notwithstanding, I was in a pretty good spot. The New York car couldn't get around me without hitting me, but the other cars, those behind the gray car in traffic, easily moved to the left of the car and continued down State Street. I wasn't blocking any other car. This way, it was only the three people in the gray car who were pissed at me. It's hard to know how much time passed, but we probably sat through at least three green lights, all the while the driver kept telling me to "f'ing move."

After several minutes, the driver stopped telling me to move. He held his cellphone up to the windshield and told me he was calling the police. I was tired of asking for the camera at that point. So, when he threatened to call the police, I just looked at him. Just as the driver was about to make the call, a Northwestern University, not a Chicago, squad car drove up the block from the south. The driver flagged the officer's attention. He stopped his squad car and rolled down the window. "What's going on?" he asked. After the officer heard from both the New York driver and me, he told me to move. "There is nothing wrong with taking a picture," he said. I wanted to cry out, 'yes there is,' but I didn't. I told the officer, what I'd told the people in the car, "I want the camera."

Unfortunately, I couldn't hold my ground as well when the police officer arrived. After he asked me to move two or three times, he unbuckled his safety belt and started to open his car door. At that point, I moved.

At that point, I was shaking so much I had to walk my bike the final few blocks to the bakery.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Dame Evelyn Glennie is a world renowned percussionist. She's toured the world, composed hundreds of pieces, and performed with scores of musicians from Sting and Bjork to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Last week, she performed in Chicago at the Harris Theater with the Sao Paulo Orchestra. The following evening, she visited Access Living, where I work, for a screening of Touch the Sound, a 90 film about her music, her influences and her collaboration with Fred Frith, another musician. After the film, she answered questions from the audience. The event was sponsored by Access Living's Arts and Culture Initiative, a project designed to give voice to disability culture and give voice to artists with disabilities. Obviously, Dame Glennie, who is Deaf, has already has found her voice, but it was fabulous that she scheduled time for the Access Living event.

Prior to her visit, I read two pretty interesting essays written by Glennie, one on disability and one on Deafness. Both essays resonated with me, in particular the piece on disability. In it, she talked about categories. She argues that species are dependent upon categories. We have this overwhelming need to group other things and each other into categories. With human beings, scores of sub-categories evolve, but, Glennie writes, "the survival of most (individuals) now depends on our understanding of the categories and their labels." These categories and sub-categories set up a "framework" of understanding. Although the categories continually change, sometimes for better (dropping traditional stereotypes once linked to the categories), they still create problems. From my reading, Glennie maintains that no matter how much a category evolves, it aways carries a set of assumptions and expectations that are applied to the individual assigned to the category. For her, this causes problems because two categories into which she is often placed are "musician" and "hard of hearing." Because of traditional expectations, those categories are mutually exclusive. As a result, she spends a lot of time answering questions like, "how can you play the drums if you are Deaf?" And, according to Glennie, no matter what answer she delivers, 90% of the time, people misunderstand the answer, most likely because of pre-determined expectations around the categories. Glennie urges us to look beyond categories to the individual. Because if we fail to allow the individual to progress according to his or her abilities, strengths and desires, he or she will be limited by categories.

This line of thinking can be applied to recent conversations and controversies around the so-called "Midget Cup" in Australia. Last week, Australian Horse Racing Officials held the "midget" race as a gag, during a break between other, more traditional horse races. The event was kind of like the sausage race between innings of Milwaukee Brewer home baseball games. The event involved three people of short stature dressed as jockeys who raced, rather than on top of horses, on top of three average size people. Anger over the event has come from Australia's racing minister, Rob Hull, who called the stunt an "embarassment," and from the Premiere of Victoria, who implied the event was "hurtful to people."

Comment boards are full of individuals defending the event, most often accusing detractors of overt political correctness and asking, 'if it was offensive, why did dwarfs participate?' Speaking of dwarfs, one of the race participants entered the debate, writing a direct response to Hull, the Racing Minister. He wrote "I would never let anybody laugh at me or degrade me . . . That I have dwarfism is secondary."

The argument he makes, that dwarfism is secondary, is significant. First of all, the jockey is wrong. If dwarfism was secondary it would have had a name that didn't include the stature of the jockeys. The event was called the "Midget" Cup. Stature took center stage. Whenever dwarfism takes center stage, it doesn't matter if the participants are doctors, lawyers, teachers, parents, sons, brothers, sisters or actors. At that point, dwarfism as a "category," what Glennie wrote about, takes over. Positive awareness around dwarfism has grown exponentially in the past few decades, helping the category of dwarfism evolve, as a category. But most often, the positive awareness comes as a result of learning about individuals who happen to have dwarfism. The audience is asked to identify with the person as an individual, one aspect of who happens to be dwarfism. Dwarfism as a category has progressed because people have gone beyond the category to the individual. In the case of the Australian event, the audience was asked to fall back upon the category. They were asked to relate to participants as 'midgets,' not individuals. As a result, the event was reflective of assumptions and judgements traditionally linked to the category of dwarfism. What's worse, the event was designed as a gag, again reflective of antinquated roles when little people will considered entertainment simply because of their stature. If, in the future, the jockeys of the 'midget cup' want to participate in a race in which dwarfism is indeed secondary, they should sign up for the Belmont Stakes.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dwarfism Awareness Month

Little People of America launched an official awareness campaign early this month, declaring October Dwarfism Awareness Month. Following up on the publicity brought to issues of dwarfism during the National Conference, LPA hopes to reach out to medical community, new parents of children with dwarfism, people with dwarfism without the support of other little people, and the general public to address stereotypes and identify important resources. The campaign coincides with LPA Regional Events around the country. Coverage of the Regional Events present the opportunity to send a message around Awareness Month. Last weekend, a Dubuque Iowa newspaper covered a regional organized by District Six and Nine of LPA. The long term goal is to lobby the Federal Government to proclaim October as Dwarfism Awareness Month.

LPA was not the only group to make an October announcement. Play Station collaborated with the NBA to announce the release of a new game called NBA 10: The Inside. Late in October, Play Station sent a mass email, announcing the game to thousands, if not millions of gamers. The email included a line that was a slap in the face of Dwarfism Awareness Month, and a line that perhaps underscores the need for Dwarfism Awareness Month. The line said, "face off against midget size versions of NBA stars (yes, we said midget)." The add was hard to believe, in particular the part in parentheses. There is still a long way to go to educate the public about how most people of short stature feel about the m-word. But I interpreted the part in parentheses to say, 'we know how you feel about the m-word, and we don't care.'

Soon after Play Station sent the mass email, a member of LPA's Advocacy Committee, Jimmy Korpai, the same one who organized the FCC Complaint around the Celebrity Apprentice, reached out to the NBA, demanding an explanation. I tried to help, reaching out to Play Station. But my efforts fell fairly flat. All I could reach over the phone were customer service agents who thought I had a technical question about the logistics of the game. Jimmy though quickly reached someone at the NBA, who connected him with the right person at Play Station. Soon enough, LPA had apologies from both groups and the offensive line in the ad was removed. Evidently, my instinct about the intent of use of the m-word was wrong. According to Play Station, it was an oversight. But, whatever the intent, the ad was fixed and LPA was able to reach at least one group with the message of Dwarfism Awareness Month.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hail the emperor

The second semester of my junior year in college, I edited the school newspaper, called The Round Table. The paper sarcastically followed a philosophy that played on the tag line of The New York Times. Rather then "All the news that's fit to print," The Round Table proudly followed the creed, "All the news that fits, we print," or something like that.

As an editor, I was determined to take the paper in a new direction. (I am guessing all editors of school papers have similar thoughts) I wanted the campus paper to include more objective news. Prior to my tenure with the paper, too many opinions covered the pages. It was filled nearly cover to cover with aspiring Eric Zorn's (Chicago Tribune), Mary Mitchell's (Chicago Sun-Times) and a fair share of Michael Sneed's (Sun-Times again), who waxed philosophic about current events and trains of thought. I wanted the kind of paper that Paris, the young Yale editor from "The Gilmore Girls," aspired to.

I was so determined to put an "objective stamp" on the paper, when, in the middle of a story about the Beloit College Swim Team, a volunteer reporter included a two paragraph interlude speculating that our incoming College president was an "aquaphobe," I deleted the subjective assertion before the paper went to print. What's more, I made the edits without telling the reporter. The writer was furious. The day of publication, as I lay in bed in my apartment, I heard him screaming about the article on the street outside my window. He was not screaming at me. He was sharing his frustration with his friend, who lived in the building next to mine. Nevertheless, I was scared. The reporter was bigger than me, more popular than me, and older than me. More important, I knew I was wrong to cut the story without telling him. The Swim Team article wasn't the only one I cut in an undemocratic manner. Sometimes entire articles would be eliminated. But, because of the student screaming outside my window, it's the one I remember most clearly.

Later in the semester, I heard second hand that at least one student thought my actions as editor were an expression of my Napoleon Complex. As a far as I know, this is the only time the term Napoleon Complex, or "Short Guy Syndrome," -- overcompensating for small stature in an overly domineering or aggressive way -- has been attributed to me. For all I know, the second hand college report may not have even been true. For all I know, other people have said it behind my back. What I do know is that as a young man I've was definetely influenced by the idea of the Napoleon Complex. I've always been somewhat introverted, hesitant and restrained. Many different factors have shaped where I am today and who I am today but one piece, perhaps small, has been the fear of the Napoleon Complex. In various situations, as a younger adult, I've held myself back, for fear of the Napoleon Tag.

Today, as a not-so-young adult, in terms of asserting my beliefs, principles and ideas, I think I do okay. With that in mind, years have passed since I thought about the idea of the Napoleon Complex. Then I came across an article from New Zealand titled
"I'm taking a stand for the little guy.", a story about a little person farmer who made headlines after shooting one of his dogs to make a point. Evidently, in order to officially register his three dogs, the local government needed to know his age. Arguing against what he believed to be bureaucratic red tape, the little person wouldn't reveal the information. When the local authorities refused to register his animals, the farmer shot one of the dogs and delivered it to the authorities in a "biscuit bag." Following reports of the story, angry letters to the editor said things like "All you have succeeded in doing is taking 'small man syndrome' to new heights." At first, I had little sympathy for the farmer. In fact, far from 'little man' syndrome, I thought he was insane.

Then I thought more about the piece, and read the article again. I won't justify the little person's actions. Killing a dog is outrageous, especially just to make a point.

But the article was much more than a piece about a man who shot his dog. It was an article about a man who spent a good part of his life fighting against what he believes is unjust treatment and unjust systems, who then had all that work trivialized by the phrase, "little man syndrome."

Interesting to me, the article added an addendum to the definition of Napoleon Complex with which I was not familiar. According to the article, the definition should include, "a demeaning phrase to explain the everyday behaviour or reactions of a shorter man ... a device to excuse discrimination by blaming the recipient of that discrimination." The man in the article was not on a crusade to make up for any height differentials, he crusaded for his beliefs. Yet, because of his height, acts that might have been defined as an expression of strong character if performed by someone of average height, were defined as a compensation for a lack of height.

Today, as I think more about Napoleon Complex, I am reminded of other terms. Terms like politically correct, used often in the past several months to describe Little People of America's efforts to discourage use of the word midget. Just like little man syndrome, the term politically correct is used to demean the efforts of a group speaking out against what it believes to be an injustice. In a way, the second half of the definition above applies also to politically correct. In my experience, politically correct is used to justify the continued discrimination against an individual or a group. In the case of LPA, it justifies further use of the word midget.

Clearly, there were problems with my efforts as editor of The Round Table, and with the actions of the person with dwarfism from New Zealand who shot his dog. But neither my height nor the height of any dwarf should be a factor when determining if our action are just, unjust, or foolhardy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

everything that's fit to print (on)

On a technology blog called "The Gadget blog from CNET," a blogger posted about a new, very small printer called "The Eensy PrintBrush." The printer is a hand held device that allows the user to print on to small surfaces. Writing about the printer, the blogger wrote, "you can print on notebooks, greetings cards, boxes, sleeping midgets . . . "

As a person of short stature, once the word midget appears in this context, or almost in any context, it takes my attention and interest away from what may be the point of the article. I imagine the writer didn't intend harm. The word was used as a joke. These days, the word midget most often appears in reports about Pop Warner Youth Leagues or, as in the case of the blog about the small printer, as a joke that is supposed to express how big or small something. I imagine the jokes are often supposed to carry some sort of shock value also. In this instance, the joke didn't express any original thought, and wasn't particularly surprising considering that when the word midget is used, it's often used in this context.

What is pleasantly surprising about the Eensy Printbrush blog post is the comment section, dominated not by endorsements or criticisms of the printer, but by debate around the word midget. Soon after the piece went live, someone wrote in, explaining that the word midget is offensive to most people of short stature. That comment inspired many others to write in, some in support of being sensitive to language impacting, and potentially offending, a particular social group; and some expressing outrage against what they believe to be out of control political correctness.

I doubt the comment section on that blog will change the world. I never would have read the blog if I didn't know ahead of time the post included use of the word midget. But of the people who read the blog, and participated in the comment section, perhaps a few, in the future, will stop to think about the language they use. If so, then the Eensy Printbrush blog was a conversation worth having.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Middle Earth or bust

I am a member of a list serve for people with dwarfism. It's a yahoo group with a couple of thousand subscribers around the world, probably two or three hundred active members and a couple dozen regular contributors. One particular regular contributor posts to the list serve all media coverage of the dwarfism community. This voluntary service is a true benefit. I for one like to know the quantity and quality of media coverage of the dwarfism community. Recently, he posted a story about what is called the "Hobbit House," a bar in the Philippines named after the mythical people created by JRR Tolkien.

An entrepreneur, who actually is a former Peace Corp volunteer, opened the bar. After finishing his tour with the Peace Corps, he stayed in the Philippines. He pursued the Hobbit Theme because he was concerned about the treatment of little people and knew that many needed work. "We took many from the worst slums in Manila, where they were mocked and ridiculed," said Jim Turner, who opened the bar. "Now they're no longer carnival freaks. They're respected entertainers and businesspeople."

The LA Times story about the Hobbit House painted a desolate picture for little people in the Philippines. Not only were little people shut out from the job market, they were cut off from most other aspects of daily living. From the story, it sounded as if little people weren't much better off than stray dogs.

Soon after the bar opened, little people from around the country flocked to Turner. He hired many, hoping he could offer better lives to as many people of short stature as possible.

When the yahoo group member posted the story, he hinted that he hopes some enterprising business person in the United States opens a similar establishment. Though I am happy that The Hobbit House offers a number of people in the Philippines the chance for a better life, I disagree with the list serve member who posted the article. Be it a Hobbit House, a Munchkin House, or a Loompa House, a business built around traditional fantasy stories that include little people would not benefit people of short stature in the United States. While a few people may find employment, such themes would support stereotypes that attach an "other worldliness" to little people. These stereotypes act as a barricade between little people and mainstream inclusion.

Of course, in the United States and elsewhere, people of short stature receive a great deal of exposure these days. Much of it is positive, or at least objective, exposure. With all the information about people of short stature available, most members of the general population are equipped with enough information to overcome whatever traditional stereotypes still exist. Even so, as little people continue to knock down barriers to full participation, I'd rather see a variety of businesses hiring little people because of acquired skills rather than one business hiring little people simply because they fit a physical profile.

I am in no position to judge business ventures here in the United States, and I have no right to judge decisions people make in another country. But going forward, in this country and in others, if the human rights of people of short stature are violated, I hope we rally around something like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities rather than a bar.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Good work if you can get it

Back in July, the Victoria Advocate, a newspaper out of Texas (that also has run at least one story about microwrestling) ran a story with the headline, “Victoria teenager with dwarfism, finds job at mall.” At first, the headline reminded me of the social stereotype facing all types of people with disabilities. Stereotypes that place such low expectations on people with disabilities that a routine activity for people without disabilities – securing a drivers license, riding the bus – becomes a significant accomplishment for someone with a disability. Most of us who are not financially independent need to find a job at some point in our lives, people with dwarfism included. Why then would a newspaper focus on a young woman with dwarfism finding a job.

Reading the article, I worked through my own sensitivities about media portrayal of disability and dwarfism to realize that finding a job was a big deal for Brittany Rios, not because of her dwarfism, but because of the general population’s lack of awareness around dwarfism. According to the story, Rios spent two years applying for jobs before finding work at a pretzel shop. Though the article reported, “[Rios] was never denied employment because of her dwarfism,” I wonder how many other teenagers spend two years searching before landing an entry level job. In other words, I would bet there were times when Rios was rejected for a job in favor of someone similarly, if not less, qualified, but who doesn’t have dwarfism. I’ll bet this is true because there are stories of other people with dwarfism who have spent long periods of time looking for work. My favorite story is that of Paul Miller, formerly of the Clinton Administration and now with the Obama Administration, who was rejected at scores of firms in favor of less qualified applicants when he was just out of law school. Far from a lawfirm, but similar in spirt, this story was posted on a listserve by a person of short stature in 2008,

In a mall with my kid sister a place was hiring. I asked for a form, they said they forgot to take the sign down. My sister went back and not only got the [application] but was hired on the spot. No, she didn't take the job.

In the case of the person who applied at the mall, he or she probably could have filed a discrimination complaint, but in many cases, proving discrimination is difficult. My hope is that the community of people with dwarfism and that Little People of America will make resources available and known so that in the future, people with dwarfism will be able to pursue employment with an awareness of their employment rights. And, my hope is that stories about people like Brittany Rios and other positive portrayals of people with disabilities will wield a positive machete in the employment search, opening up the minds of employers and clearing a path of success for other job seekers with disabilities.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Disability Pride Parade -- 2009

July 25 was the sixth Annual Disability Pride Parade. The parade takes place in Chicago every year and is usually organized out of Access Living, the disability service organization where I earn a living. Because location makes it so easy for me to be involved with the parade, a few years I've volunteered a lot of my time to help organize the parade. In 2004, the inaugural year, I handled registration, and in 2005 I handled logistics. In 2006, I coordinated the program after the parade.

Though I was involved, I rarely felt a strong desire to march in the parade. In 2004, I coordinated the registration process, but I was out of town on the day of the parade. In 2005 and 2006, my parade responsibilities took me away from the march. While thousands of people paraded up the street, I was setting up in the park, getting ready for the post-parade celebration. Though the actual marching captured the spirit of the parade -- was the moment to show off your pride over who we were as people with disabilities-- I was content doing my part to help, even if I didn’t march.

Until this year. In 2007, the Windy City Chapter of LPA organized a contingent to march for the first time. I marched with the group, but didn’t know about the contingent until just before the parade. LPA marched again in 2008, but I was out of town for a family vacation. This year, I knew well ahead of time about the LPA contingent. And more than any other year, I really wanted to march. I have been involved with the Chicago Disability Community for ten years, and groups like Access Living and ADAPT, which I’m a part of, are the heart of the Chicago Disability Community, but it is to LPA that I most closely identify as a person with a disability.

Six of us from the Windy City chapter marched. Holding an LPA Banner, we marched behind the 2016 Float (the committee organizing Chicago for 2016 Olympics and Paralympics), which carried about 20 people, some of whom danced about on the float, jamming to songs like “Celebration” and “It’s a Beautiful Day.” The weather was great, sunshine but not hot or humid -- the way too many summers are. Thousands of people didn’t line the sidewalks like they do on St. Patrick’s Day, but a few did. As the six of us paraded up Dearborn carrying the banner, we waved, smiled and in some cases, paused quickly to pose for pictures.

The pictures are what reinforced to me what is important about a Disability Pride Parade. As a person with dwarfism living in a large city, I am always alert for strangers with cameras. I often hear stories of little people getting their image taken by strangers without permission. It’s happened to me at least three times. Perhaps the photos shouldn't be such a big deal, but it is pretty insulting to get your photo taken without permission. And nowadays, with websites and youtube, who knows where and in what context the photos will appear.

So there we were on July 25, six of us smiling and inviting photos from strangers, putting ourselves on display, but under our own terms. Even if some of the people holding cameras were strangers, I was happy to get my photo taken. Who knows where some of those photos may show up, but after six years of a parade, I felt in my heart what it means to be disabled and proud.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


I returned from the Brooklyn National Conference two days ago. Though the conference was pretty amazing, considering all the media coverage about our concerns with language, never before had I been so happy to return. Everyday was a challenge, responding to follow up media requests (though the host committee was more overwhelmed than me) and dealing with on-site media (one attendee threw a plate at a camera man because he shined a light in his face). My biggest concern had to do with all the headlines claiming LPA wants to ban the word midget. Many conference attendees said many different things during the week. So I wouldn't be surprised if at some point the word ban was used, but in reality LPA passed a policy statement condemning the word midget and the FCC complaints list material that was found offensive. Neither the policy statement nor the FCC complaints ask for a ban. Perhaps we would not have received so much coverage without the word ban. Though some of the coverage has been bad -- people calling us the language and thought police; calling us overly sensitive PC Police --our concerns with language are more in the public eye than ever before. Going forward, I hope LPA can use this attention to our advantage, continuing to educate around language and continuing to present the message that people of short stature are just like everyone else, doing their part to contribute to an inclusive, diverse community.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Full Coverage

Not sure if any of us expected this. Back in April, when Little People of America and members within LPA raised concerns about "Celebrity Apprentice," one columnist picked up the story. With the back drop of the LPA National Conference and with an FCC complaint, hundreds of outlets have picked up the story. Though it's hard to follow all the coverage while at the conference, I've heard that issues raised here at the conference have been mentioned on "The View" and "The Tonight Show." Not sure if all this coverage is a good thing, but to borrow from Bob Kafka of ADAPT, "at least they hear us." On Monday evening, I had the opportunity to interview with KABC Radio from Los Angeles. The columnist who picked up the story in April, Buck Wolf, hooked up the interview for LPA. He picked me up at the conference hotel around midnight, then we drove to the ABC station on the Upper West side for a 1 a.m. interview. The program was broadcast live in Los Angeles. Though I think my live, on air radio comedic skills need polishing, I was happy for the opportunity to share LPA's message.

Monday, July 6, 2009

This time, I mean it -- "it's on"

Yesterday was a pretty good day at the Little People of America Conference. The motion to officially condone the word "midget," tabled on Saturday, was easily passed Sunday morning. Soon after the motion passed, I got on a shuttle with Mike Petruzelli (the President of LPA's Long Island Chapter and one of the NY Conference Coordinators), Clint Brown (a conference coordinator and the one who is running media in New York) and others for a news conference to announce the LPA Conference. We hosted the conference at the stadium where the Dwarf Athletic Association Games were being held. Petruzelli got the help of a pr guy in the area who works with some local politician. They all did a great job. At least seven outlets were there, including a television stringer that would feed the content to scores of other networks. I kicked off the media event with a welcome then some background on Little People of America. Mike P. then spoke more specifically about the conference. Clint then took the microphone to talk about diversity, acceptance and language. This was great timing to coincide with LPA's official condemnation of the m-word. To reinforce Clint's message, Amy Roloff of "Little People Big World" spoke about her commitment to inclusion, acceptance, etc...

The news conference was quite an exciting and exhilarating but scary event. Scary in so far as every time we, as people of short stature put ourselves in the public eye, we open ourselves up to objectification. I think we open ourselves up even more when we put forth a strong message about acceptance. But if we want change, we have to take chances and take risks. Kudos to the New York Conference Organizers -- Petruzelli, Brown and Jimmy and Darlene Korpai, who really pushed the envelope, bringing the national a step forward.

The conference also was a chance to revisit the issue of the April 5 "Celebrity Apprentice." Some people were worried this was a bad idea, that it would only open old wounds and open the door to more ridicule. But I disagree. Back in April and May, NBC, Trump and Burnett shrugged off our concerns. Considering that scores of outlets picked up yesterday's news conference, and many of them placed follow up calls to Trump, NBC, etc..., this time, we will be more difficult to ignore. Here is a link to the Associated Press coverage of the event.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Little People Big Apple *

I arrived in Brooklyn last night for the 2009 Little People of America Conference, expected to be the most well attended conference in the 52 year history of the organization. As well it should be, considering that the New York metropolitan area has never hosted a national and that hundreds of people have been waiting eagerly, hoping that some day the conference would come to New York. I think the wait was worth it. Unlike so many other conferences based out of hotels near airports and the outskirts of urban centers, this one is in a central urban area. In years past, often times we've been at the mercy of tour buses if we wanted to see anything outside the lobby, conference rooms and ball rooms of the hosting hotel. This year, there are hundreds of things to do, see (and smell) within a few easy walking blocks of the hotel. Tonight, a group of us wandered three blocks from the hotel, found some Italian Food, walked another block for ice cream, then mingled with hundreds of Brooklyners on their way to the promenade for the fire works.

But, as a member of the LPA Board, before I have fun, I go to meetings. Today's meeting was of particular interest to me because we were scheduled to talk about the word midget -- considered pretty negative and objectifying by most people of short stature when it is used to refer to a person of short stature. In my estimate, the vast majority of the LPA membership, and at least a majority of the dwarfism population in this country, feels the same way, that the word is hurtful and an insult. In my role as Vice President of Public Relations, I am sometimes contacted by media about stories relating to the dwarfism community. Without exception, the issue of language always comes up, and I always tell the reporters the same thing, "The word midget has evolved into a derogotary, degrading term." I am not the only one. Any other member of the organization who is interviewed says the same thing. But interestingly, LPA as an organization does not have a policy on the question of language. Obviously, no policy has not stopped me or others from speaking against the word midget, but if LPA, as the largest membership organization for people of short stature, were to have a policy, it could help the effort to eliminate use of the word in the general public. A policy would give more weight to individuals who request that papers, televion programs and radio personalities not use the word. With that said, today was the day that the board of directors was going to hear a motion that LPA would officially identify the word midget as negative.

Unfortunately, the meeting ran long so the agenda item was tabled until tomorrow. So tonight, rather than celebrate a successful motion, or wonder what went wrong with the motion, I will enjoy what Brooklyn has to offer in terms of pizza, ice cream and fireworks.

*I stole this title from a tshirt I saw here in Brooklyn, probably designed by one of the conference organizers building on the momentum created by all those TLC shows about little people.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

More Little People Big World -- more little people

I am not an expert of the program, but I think “Little People Big World” has now completed four seasons. And I know that filming of another season is underway. Now that the show is well beyond its rookie and sophomore seasons, I often wonder if the show is thriving because the novelty of watching people of different stature on television doesn’t wear off or because the plot lines transcend difference, connecting with audiences on issues that impact all of us.

As “Little People Big World” moved into the third and fourth season, I started to believe the latter, that the Roloff family dynamics connected with viewers in a realistic, human way. Viewers tuned in not to stare at people who look different from the general population but to watch this one random family live day to day much the way millions of other families do. In my experience, through interaction with young students when making presentations on disability, kids refer to the Roloffs not as “those dwarfs on television,” but as the family on television. In other cases, peers of mine are drawn to the show because they love the interaction between Amy and Matt Roloff, believing this a great example, not of how two dwarfs interact, but how two married people interact. These reactions have reinforced my hope that the Roloffs and others are sending the critical message that, while we appear different at first glance, people of short stature are no different than anyone else.

Though the Roloffs have indeed sent that message, recently, I’ve had second thoughts about why people are tuning in. The second thoughts can be found in two news programs, both also a part of the TLC Network. The programs, “Little People Just Married” and “Little People Big Pregnancy” introduce the television world to two new dwarf couples. Obviously, one couple has just been married and the other has just had a child. The emergence of these new programs contradicts my belief that interest in the Roloffs has more to do with their dynamics than with their dwarfism. Clearly, TLC built on the momentum of Little People Big World, not with more programs that explore human dynamics, but with more programs about little people. Little people are the draw; not dynamics.

Despite my pessimism, even if people tune in to "Little People Big World" for the novelty of difference, the program has still covered enormous amounts of positive ground in terms of awareness. And though people may tune in for the chance to gawk, at least now they know to say “person of short stature” or “dwarf” rather than midget. And while the new programs offer more opportunity to look at people of short stature, the numbers of people who gawk will dwindle, and the amount of positive ground we cover as a community will continue to grow.

For much more on the Roloffs than I could ever offer, visit the blog, "Keeping up with the Roloffs."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


The most difficult part of my position as Vice President of Public Relations for Little People of America are calls and emails about which I can do very little. Often times, the calls and emails are from people whose health care application has been denied because of a pre-existing condition. The first time I received such a note it was from a father who is a little person and has two children who are also short statured. He had recently switched jobs and was denied coverage when he tried to sign up for a new plan. When I heard about it, I thought surely the insurance company was breaking the law. But after asking around, I soon learned that denying coverage because of a pre-existing condition is legal and that being denied coverage is not uncommon in the dwarfism community.

More recently, an email came in from a family with a one-year old who has dwarfism. They also recently switched coverage. Soon after switching coverage, the family was pre-approved for a neurological check-out. After they received pre-approval, the insurance company contacted the family, explaining that the original application was under investigation. Clearly, when the insurance company learned of the one-year-old's dwarfism, it began looking for reasons to drop coverage.

I am not in the health care or insurance industry, but I seen enough documentaries about health care and have read enough about the health care to know that companies look for ways to deny coverage in order to avoid what the companies believe to be the high costs of covering people with pre-existing conditions. What I don't understand is how a health care industry can be established around the goal of low costs and profits rather than support for people and families who need it, i.e. -- everyone. Obviously, that's naive of me. Most every industry and business in this country and else where is founded on the principle of profit. What's difficult to understand though is profit at the expense of infant children, inviduals and families who need coverage. Again, that's naive me. Even so, it's hard to know what to say to people who are perfectly healthy but, like everyone else, need health care. Unfortunately, just because they are not like everyone else in terms of stature, they are denied. There are options for people who are denied -- petition the state insurance board, apply for public health assistance, try to use current law (genetic non-discrimination act - from what I've heard this is difficult to do). Not everyone has time to be an adovocate though, and not all advocacy efforts are successful.

President Obama campaigned on the pledge to make it illegal to deny health coverage based upon pre-existing conditions. Hopefully, that pledge will become a reality soon. Until then, things might get worse for people at risk of losing or not getting health care because of pre-existing conditions. A recent congressional inquiry investigated the practice of insurance companies rescinding coverage. According to the story, congressional inquiry or not, the companies plan to continue the practice.

Monday, June 8, 2009


On June 3, I flew from Chicago to Washington D.C. to represent Little People of America in a meeting between Kareem Dale, the Special Assistant to the President on Disability Policy; Jeff Crowley, the Director of the Office of National Aids Policy and Senior Advisor on Disability issues; and representatives of the Justice For All Action Network (JFAAN). The Justice For All Action Network is a coalition of disability led organizations that came together following the Presidential Election in 2008. The idea of the group is to voice disability concerns and interests in Washington DC as the new Presidential Administration develops policy. As a national membership organization, LPA was invited to join the group back in November or December of 2008. When JFAAN secured a meeting with Dale and Crowley, LPA was one of about 12 groups representing JFAAN.

The goal of the June 3 meeting was similar to the original goal of the coalition, influence the President on policy issues such as long term services, housing, education, employment, technology and transportation. Though the other organizations representating the disability network are much more schooled on issues like housing, technology and employment than I am, I thought the trip to Washington was a great opportunity for myself and for Little People of America. The meeting, and the JFAAN Network in general, gives LPA the chance to participate in a broad disability coalition. While it is great that we are participating in the coalition, the trip to Washington reminded that if LPA wants to pursue interests outside the sphere of our organization, we need to do more on a policy level.

The groups representing JFAAN at the meeting (groups like ADAPT, National Council of the Blind, the Hearing Loss Association, Self Advocates Becoming Empowered) all have specific legislative agendas that support the respective organizations. Furthermore, most of the groups could indentify specific legislation in Washington that supports their agenda. For example, ADAPT supports the Federal Community Choice Act, legislation that would help people with disabilities live in their own homes instead of institutions. The National Council of the Blind supports legislation that would require electric cars to implement some kind of auditory signal. LPA has interests that overlap with other organizations and disability specific legislation (for example a health care reform package that makes it illegal to deny coverage based upon pre-existing conditions), but we do not have a specific legislative agenda agreed upon by the organization. It'd be one thing if we didn't need an agenda, but there are specific pieces of policy that would support people with dwarfism:

1. Implementation of the most recent ADAAG (Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines) Regulations which would enforce a 48 inch reach on things like ATMs.
2. The implementation of the Kennedy-Brownback Bill which would provide accurate informaiton to parents of infants diagnosed with disabilities such as dwarfism.
3. Echoing what was said above, health care legislation that makes it illegal to deny coverage based upon pre-existing condition.

Sitting in the meeting on June 3, I thought about the importance of developing a specific policy agenda organization, so that in the future, if members of LPA travel to Washington, we can be heard, and not just seen.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Height and income

In a study released last week, researchers from the University of Sydney and the Australian National University in Carberra concluded that "taller men stood to make much more money than their colleague." In the study, conducted among 20,000 volunteers, the average male height was 5'10". According to the study, if a man is six feet tall, he would earn another 1.5 percent, or $950 a year. That figure is very close to one from a 2004 study by researchers from the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina. The 2004 study found that every inch of height translates to a salary increase of $789.

As a person of short stature, I find these studies interesting. But in reality, the studies are not talking about people of short stature. The studies look at differences between average height men and men slightly larger than average height. But my question would be, 'what does this mean for people of short stature?' If you follow the income pattern listed above, then, as Bill Bradford pointed out in a column from December of 2008, a man 3'10" would earn $20,000 less than a man six feet tall. That seems pretty unrealistic, but, from my limited personal experience and limited anecdotal experience, I would guess that income, hiring, and promotional trends are different for people of short stature, or well below average height, compared to people of average, or above average, height.

While the organization Little People of America slowly builds its advocacy network and while the little person community in general builds coalition with the disability, employment is an issue I hope the community addresses. Because whether the income disparities identified in the more recent study and the study from 2004 are true or not, it's important that we know. And it's important that as individuals, we equip ourselves with the knowledge, the resources and the protections to enable us to reach our full potential.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Apprentice Follow-up

More than a month has passed since the April 5 episode of "Celebrity Apprentice" that angered many people of short stature, their families, friends and supporters. Almost immediately after the episode, a handful of people started working on a response, most notably a group of parents from the New York area. They worked diligently the entire week following the episode, putting pressure on NBC and the "Celebrity Apprentice" program to issue some kind of positive statement about the dwarfism community to counter the negative image projected on the April 5 episode. Unfortunately, NBC, Trump and others failed to respond.

Though more than a month has passed, the handful of people still hopes to initiate a response from NBC and Trump regarding the episode. One tool for doing so is a petition now posted online. The petition asks that NBC remove a link with the m-word from the "Celebrity Apprentice" page and meet with members of the dwarfism community to create some kind of positive outreach program to raise awareness around dwarfism.

In addition, two parents plan to run articles in the next edition of LPA Today, the quarterly magazine of Little People of America, that summarize what happened in the wake of Celebrity Apprentice and attempt to organize the community when similar events happen in the future.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Who says April is the cruelest month?

First of all, I really appreciate the people who read this blog. From what I know, there are not many of you, but you are loyal. The way I see it, this is kind like a new start up company that hasn't gone public yet. When we go public, the loyalists will be rewarded with the big dividends. Don't expect cash though.

I mention this because my goal is to make at least three entries a month. At that pace, I'll hit the 100th entry in a year or so. That's when we'll really take off! (If this were a text or an email, I would write something like laughing out loud here). The problem is, I write about pretty much the same thing over and over again. And that's language. Language as it relates to disability and dwarfism is one of the focuses of this blog, but nevertheless I wonder if the people who read this would like something new. With this in mind, in May, I will try to expand the subject area a little bit within the context of disability.

But, it's not yet May. I want to end April with another positive entry about language. Last, week, just after I had learned that the New York Times planned to run a column announcing that the word dwarf would replace the m-word in their style guide (thanks NY Times), I got an email from a researcher at ESPN magazine. He was digging up information about Eddie Gaedel, the little person who Bill Veeck, the owner of the St. Louis Browns Baseball Team, inserted into a game as a pinch hitter in 1951. The move was a gimmick to increase attendance for the St. Louis club, which had been doing pretty poorly in the standings and in attendance. Any paper that covered the event in 1951, or basically any story written about the incident since 1951, referred to Gaedel as a midget. This usage doesn't fall into the same category as "Celebrity Apprentice," especially since in the 1950's, from what I understand, the word was acceptable. But the story is often retold these days, and even though there is no harmful intent when a story about Gaedel uses the m-word, it gets a little tiring. In his email, the researcher wanted my opinion about acceptable terminology within the community of people of short stature. I replied to the email, giving the researcher a little bit of the history of language within the dwarfism community and answering his question.

I didn't think much about the email correspondance until tonight. I went onto the ESPN Magazine website and searched under the word midget. There were 101 entries in the past year. That was disconcerting. To be fair though, many of them appeared to be in reference to car racing, and I couldn't find any recent references connected to Gaedel. Then I searched under Gaedel, which I should have done in the first place. The latest an entry was April 22 in a column called "Life of Reilly." Sure enough, there was mention of Eddie Gaedel in the column. The m-word was nowhere to be found. Instead, Reily used the word dwarf to describe him. Maybe some day people of short stature won't need any labels, but until that time, kudos to the researcher at ESPN for using an appropriate label. And, as April draws to a close, good work to The Simpsons, the New York Times and ESPN Magazine, who have helped make a month that started with snow not so bad after all.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

And the winner is .....

Coincidentally, on April 5, the same night NBC ran an episode of the "Celebrity Apprentice" humiliating people of short stature, "The Simpsons" episode also included a person of short stature. While "The Simpsons" episode didn't earn nearly the same attention as "The Celebrity Apprentice," it should have, but for opposite reasons. Comparing reality television with scripted television may not be fair, or possible, but for everything "Celebrity Apprentice" did wrong, "The Simpsons" did correct.

As a person of short stature, there is plenty of material on television, the radio and the internet about which to be offended. Sometimes, if a complaint is expressed, we are criticized as too sensitive. People within and without the community say, "just like any other minority, you have to learn to take a joke." But that critique is wrong. Comedy that works in relation to a minority group doesn't poke fun directly at the members of the group because of who and what they are. Comedy that works pokes fun at the stereotypes about the minority group developed by the at-large community, at the way people outside of the group react to the stereotypes, and at the way members of the minority respond to the stereotypes.

The "Simpsons" storyline on April 5 followed Moe, the bartender of Moe's Tavern. He had recently met a woman through an internet dating service. The woman turned out to be a person of short stature. Moe didn't know about her stature until they met in person for the first time. They had planned to meet at Moe's Tavern. The initial meeting opened a huge door for comedic laughs. Knowing Moe's character and his tendencies to make off color comments, I expected the comedy to come at the expense of Maya, the short statured woman over the internet. But instead, the comedy revolved around the fear of offending minorities. When Moe opened the door to find a woman half the size of what he expected, he said, "oh, you are a little person," then cringed worrying he had offended her. Bluntly, he apologized, saying, "I am sorry, I didn't mean that; what's the correct term?" To which Maya answered, "Little person." Then Moe hurries back inside, keeping Maya at the door, to "tidy up." Inside, Moe tears down a banner advertising dwarf tossing and throws in the trash Little Women.

Later in the episode, when Moe and Maya meet Homer and Marge for a double date, Homer, looking very confused and tentative says, "I have a mechanical question." Terrified the question is about the logistics of a sexual relationship between two people much different in size, Moe cringes horribly. Of course, why wouldn't Homer ask such an inappropriate question. But the question turns out to be about nuclear reactions.

The episode is full of comedy like this. Maya's height is at the center of it. But the comedy doesn't make fun of her. It makes fun of the way we react to difference, in process pointing out how silly it is to make a big deal of the physical differences between people. So if I were handing out awards for best television on Sunday, April 5, 2009, "The Simpson's" would win in a landslide.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Celebrity Apprentice

On Sunday, April 5, a friend sent me a text, telling me about an episode of “Celebrity Apprentice” that included several people with dwarfism. From “Little People, Big World,” to “Boston Legal” to one of The Learning Channel’s more recent reality shows about a newly married couple, little people have been relatively common on television lately. In many cases, the more frequent appearance of little people has made a positive impact, raising awareness about physical difference and projecting the message that little people are not much different from others. The text I received suggested “Celebrity Apprentice” would not follow the latest positive trend. I never watch “Celebrity Apprentice” and I knew the show would make me mad. But I turned from Rocky III on WGN to NBC.

The “Celebrity Apprentice” competition was to create an online video to promote a new concentrated laundry detergent. The detergent, made by All, came in a small bottle. Soon enough, the contests on “Celebrity Apprentice,” divided into two teams, hired four people with dwarfism to promote the product. One team cast three little people as small bottles of detergent. For the video, the little people put on shiny blue unitards and yellow construction helmets then pretended to clean a dirty contestant. Any actor, even someone with a good sense of humor, would have been embarrassed to dress up in bright blue unitard then crawl into a dryer to deliver the final line of the video, as one person with dwarfism was directed to do. Anyone in such an outfit would have looked silly.

Despite the long history of dwarfs used in entertainment as visual gags, it’s hard to argue that dressing up as a bottle of detergent is more offensive for a little person than for someone else. With this in mind, Little People of America, the national group that supports people with dwarfism, often stays neutral on roles in entertainment for little people, even if many individual people with dwarfism find the roles offensive. However, LPA does not stay neutral around issues of language.

For decades, the community of people with dwarfism has advocated against the word midget, a word once commonly used to describe people with proportional dwarfism. Because of the word’s association with the objectification of people with dwarfism, midget has inherited deeply negative, offensive connotations. Today, most people with dwarfism identify the word to be just as harmful as the most pejorative slang associated with other social and ethnic minorities. Ten years ago, most people not directly familiar with the dwarfism community would not have known about the m-word. But today, many more people are aware how hurtful the word can be. In fact, while brainstorming video ides, contestants on the “Celebrity Apprentice” acknowledged how people with dwarfism would react to the m-word. At one point, Donald Trump, Jr., when briefed about Team Athena’s video, (the video that included the little people in unitards), communicated how offended the dwarfism community would be with the m-word.

In my opinion, after Donald Trump, Jr. visited Team Athena, the episode of “Celebrity Apprentice” went from bad to worse. Despite the progress made in the portrayal of people with dwarfism on television, many little people are still cast in embarrassing roles. The three actors dressed as bottles of detergent was just another embarrassing role. Despite the education and awareness around the m-word, derogatory language is still used to describe people of short stature. But in most cases, the language is an oversight and the perpetrators are open to learning new language. Or, it’s used by bloggers and web designers in domains that are intended to be offensive. In most cases, main stream television tries to get it right. For a moment on “Celebrity Apprentice,” it was almost as if viewers were witnessing language education first-hand. A few of the contestants used offensive language, but others called them on it. But rather then use what they learned, or use what they knew about the community of people of short stature, Team Athena continued to use the m-word, even in the title of their final video. It was if the contestants said, “we don’t care.”

In the week since “Celebrity Apprentice” ran on NBC, hundreds of people of short stature have rallied around the episode, demanding the Trump, Burnett Productions and NBC account for the actions of the contestants, whether by issuing an apology, posting positive information about Little People of America, or running a public service message about language. At this point, though some members have made contact with staff at NBC who seem “sympathetic,” the “Celebrity Apprentice” website still runs the video with the m-word title.

Advocates will continue to address the issue. Though, as I said earlier, people of short stature have made positive progress recently, there is nothing to guarantee that Trump, NBC or anyone will listen to our calls and our statements this week, next week, or this summer with LPA gathers in New York. For people of short stature, like all social minorities, change will take time. Perhaps for us, since we are so few, change will take more time. My hope is that someday, Trump, when thinking back about the “Celebrity Apprentice” April 5 episode, he will be just as embarrassed as I was when I watched it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

At least it's not a petting zoo

A few weeks ago, not more than two blocks from work, a young woman walked up to me, looked me directly in the eye, and said something to the affect of "you are so cute. I've never seen a midget in person before." This doesn't happen often. But when it does, I refer to it as the 'zoo affect.'

I probably didn't learn as much as I should have in college, but I have retained a few useful bits of knowledge in my experience. More specifically, I've acquired a few useful tools that I use to gauge how I interact with the world around me and how that world affects me. One tool I learned from my friend Rohit as we drove north up Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, talking and having a good time. Rohit was behind the wheel. Another car cut him off. I swore under my breath. He kept driving and smiling. "Doesn't that piss you off?" I asked. He considered my question a moment, then answered. "Maybe," he said. "But I'm going to forget about it in ten minutes anyway."

I remember Rohit's words, and try to apply them as a litmus test, measuring the importance of situations that really annoy me, from cars that block the bike lane, to bicyclists that blow stoplights to ignorant use of derogatory language. His insightful words have many times helped me avoid dwelling uselessly on benign hassles. But when looking into the eyes of the woman who spoke to me, or at me, as if some animal at the zoo I knew I'd be lucky to forget what she said in ten years, much less ten minutes.

While searching for a witty or devastatingly sarcastic comeback, I came up empty, and settled for honesty, telling her I felt like a chimpanzee at the zoo. I guess she'd never heard a monkey talk. She broke out laughing and strode away, staggering under the weight of her laugh.

I guess sometimes, just like with bad traffic, there is nothing you can do. Next time the woman sees a person of short stature, I hope some of the novelty has worn off. If not, I hope she remembers to wear her seatbelt.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

two steps back

Nearly a week ago, President Obama appeared on “The Tonight Show.” Personally, I would have preferred he appear on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” but he could have done worse than Leno. He could have appeared with Jimmy Kimmel, infamous for making fun of little people. Whatever the program, unlike some critics who called his participation unpresidential, I was pleased with his decision to appear on Leno. At least, until the next morning.

I didn’t watch Obama on Leno, but I soon learned that his appearance unhinged the confidence he had built with the nation’s disability community. Joking with Leno about his skills as a bowler, the President used people with intellectual disabilities as a punchline when he compared his ten pin prowess to competing in the Special Olympics.

Though the President quickly apologized to Tim Shriver of the Special Olympics, the apology didn’t quell the furious debate that followed within and without the disability community. If the President’s comment had been an oversight, a poor choice of words at the wrong time, perhaps the apology would have closed the books on the issue.

When Obama wanted to make a point that he was a really bad bowler, the best way he could illustrate that was a joke about the Special Olympics. Obama’s mistake was a reflection of the negative images that still dominate disability in this country. The negative images are rooted in prejudice that comes from generations of exclusion, isolation, segregation and discrimination. To address the prejudice will take, not an apology, but a major policy shift and systems change. It will take a dramatic effort to include the voice and concerns of disability in all levels of government. Through his campaign comments, through policy statements, and through appointments he has made, President Obama has hinted that a major shift could become a reality under his administration. In fact, just before his appearance on Leno, at a town hall meeting in Los Angeles, Obama illustrated that hope, answering a question on disability not in the traditional “special needs” manner, but with language of inclusion, integration, and participation. But to this point progress has been little more that words and policy statements. That is why Obama’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” was so devastating. It forced those who believe that change might be a reality to ask themselves, “What, if anything, has changed? What, if anything, will change?”