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.

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