Sunday, January 31, 2010

We are not alone -- Rahm Emanuel and the r-word

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that last August, in a meeting with White House aides and liberal members of congress, President Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel uttered the words "Fucking retarded." Evidently, Emanuel was 'scolding' the liberals for planning attack ads against the efforts of more conservative democrats to block health care reform. Since the comment surfaced publicly, many individuals and groups have spoken out, holding Emanuel accountable for using the word retard as a slur and for using a word that people with intellectual disabilities have been lobbying to eliminate from our vernacular.

Within 24 hours of the Wall Street Journal article, Tim Shriver of the Special Olympics dispatched a letter to the President's Chief of Staff. The letter was circulated around disability list-serves. I was surprised by the letter and impressed. Shriver's letter lacked anger and vindictiveness, as it probably should. I've learned in my efforts to impact use of the word midget, and I imagine many others who are trying to shape language might agree, that no one wants to be told what words they can and can not use. No where in Shriver's letter did he demand that Emanuel stop using the r-word. He didn't scold Emanuel. He didn't demand an apology. In fact, Shriver assumed Emanuel might not have even used the word. Reports might have misrepresented what the Chief of Staff actually said. Rather than tell Emanuel what to say, Shriver shared information about the stigma connected to the r-word and invited Emanuel to join in the efforts to end use of the word.

Who knows how Emanuel will respond, but I think Shriver took the correct approach. In a campaign to change language, you need to create bridges. Shriver created a bridge by sharing how hurtful the r-word can be. He invited Emanuel to cross that bridge and join thousands of others who have pledged not to use the word.

The approach reminds me of my wife Katie, who is a strong advocate against the r-word. Not always, but most times, if we are out in public and somebody uses the r-word, she will say something. She won't accuse the person who used the word of prejudice or of ignorance. She won't tell them not use the word. She will simply say something like "I really don't like that word." In most cases, Katie's reaction has a strong affect, causing an emotion reaction that causes people to question use of the word.

Though I am sad about the news of Emanuel's use of the r-word, the incident has given me some new enthusiasm. First of all, it's given me ideas for how to improve my approach to raising awareness around and ending use of the m-word. But perhaps more important, I feel more empowered now, knowing that people of short stature are not alone. Language is a struggle that affects so many of us. Hopefully, as we move forward, we can find ways to support each other, and unite in our common efforts around language.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Humanizing language

A woman named Lya Graf has surfaced in the news a number of times over the past two years. She was the person of short stature photographed with JP Morgan during Banking Hearings in the Depression Era. The photograh has reappeared recently in the wake of more government finance hearings and investigations in 2009 and 2010. But little has been said about Graf other than she is the “midget” with JP Morgan in the famous photograph. Part of the problem with the word midget is that it slices away a person's humanity. The word affords little space for character, depth, emotion and feeling, leaving room only for a physical object. One way to combat against the word is to assert the history and character within the person to whom the word has been applied. I am grateful to people like Dan Kennedy and Betty Adelson, both authors of books about little people, who have done what The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have recently failed to do and what I am guessing many media outlets from 1933 failed to do, empower the legacy of Lya Graf with a bit of humanity.

In a letter to the New York Times early in 2009, Adelson wrote,

In the course of doing research for these books, I read about the incident that was referred to briefly in the Times article: Few readers, and perhaps not many LPA members, are likely to be aware that the woman referred to as a midget was Lya Graf (her stage name), at that time a member of a Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey circus troupe. She had been "plopped" in tycoon J.P. Morgan's lap during a depression-era Senate hearing on banking by a press agent for the circus, in conjunction with a Scripps-Howard reporter. Much to the surprise of those present, Morgan, generally regarded as a stiff curmudgeon, smiled and interacted with Graf pleasantly--and the photograph later led to at least a temporary improvement in the public's impression of him.

However, its outcome for Graf was very different. Sensitive and shy, and hounded by the press during the following two years, she later returned to her native Germany--and perished at Auschwitz. She had been rounded up because of the triple stigma of her being half-Jewish, a person with a disability, and widely associated with J.P. Morgan, a despised American capitalist.

Adelson's letter helped influence the New York Times current policy to use the word dwarf to identify people of short stature. Kennedy includes a similar piece about Graf in his book, Little People, Learning to see the world through my daughter's eyes.

Hopefully, a similar effort will influence the Wall Street Journal, which used the m-word last week when reporting on a recent round of banking hearings, again referring to the photograph of JP Morgan and Graf.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Wall Street Journal and the m-word

Last year, people of short stature around the country rallied in response to an article from the New York Times that used the word midget. The word wasn't used maliciously. It was used to describe an incident back during the Depression Era when a person of short stature was photographed on the lap of financier JP Morgan. The picture was taken during some Federal investigations into the depression era banking industry. Some 76 years later, in 2009, while the United States suffered another economic crisis, the banking industry was again the scorn of the country and the subject of congressional investigations. Last year, when the New York Times used the word "midget," the paper was referring to the photograph with JP Morgan when reporting on upcoming congressional banking panels. Though the word was not intended as an insult, many people wrote to the New York Times, asking they not use the word, whatever the situation. As a result, the New York Times created a policy in which it now uses the word dwarf when referring to a person of short stature.

Just last week, on the eve of yet another congressional panel preparing to ask financiers what happened to the economy in 2007 and 2008, the Wall Street Journal Blog used the word "midget." Just like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal blog was reflecting back on the Depression Era incident with JP Morgan. When I read the blog post, I was disappointed with the language, but I was also hopeful for an opportunity to impact the policy of a second national newspaper. I wrote to the online editors and expressed my concerns about language. The next day I shared the blog post with a number of networks of people of short stature, and encouraged others who were concerned with the Wall Street Journal post to write to the editors.

I've never fancied myself a terrific organizer. While some hard-core advocates with whom I work at Access Living tenaciously and sometimes ferociously rally support around a cause, I've always followed a system of making information available, then letting people make their own decisions about what to do. But because of what happened with the New York Times article last year, I was expecting a more significant response to the Wall Street Journal. Though a few have responded favorably, I've also seen some ambivalent feedback -- someone suggesting it was benign use of the word-- and some negative feedback -- 'stop whining about language. Be proud you are a midget and reclaim the word.'

There are scores of reasons why response to the Wall Street Journal isn't what I thought it would be: like I said earlier, rallying the troops is not my forte; perhaps the struggle to change language usage is like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill over and over again; perhaps more people are following the creed "names will never hurt me."

Whatever the reason, I still think language is important. And Little People of America is committed to changing language. Anytime I doubt the importance of language, I think of other marginalized groups and how they respond to derogatory language. And though the Wall Street Journal, like the New York Times, probably isn't aware of the impact of the word "midget," I still think we have a great opportunity to impact a policy at a major paper with a huge circulation. I realize that even if we are successful with the Wall Street Journal, we are not going to stop permanently use of the word "midget," but unlike Sisyphus, the next hill might not be as large.

Wall Street Journal

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Reality Bites

2010 promises to bring more reality television, including more reality shows that include people of short stature.

In the past few months, producers of at least three programs supposedly in-the-works have reached out to Little People of America, requesting help to find prospective reality stars who are little people. A vocal group of little people are beginning to roll their eyes and jokingly refer to The Learning Channel (TLC), which hosts the majority of little people reality programs, as The Little People Channel, (click here for a blog entry from the LPA Today Editor about reality television).

The argument made by those fed up with the unending requests for little people to fill available slots in reality television is no joke. They argue that reality television fills a gawking void left open by the elimination of side shows and carnivals. The argument follows that while creators of reality television claim they'd like to illustrate little people are no different than anyone else, they are actually putting people who are different on display to satisfy the same curiosity that inspired people to buy tickets to a traveling circus featuring the world's smallest person.

There is some truth to this argument. The audiences who pay money to see midget wrestling indeed are driven by the same curiosity that fueled circus side shows. I am sure the creators of an upcoming Spike TV reality show that features the founder of a midget wrestling troupe are counting on that same audience.

But for reality programs that last more than one season, the curiosity would have worn off by now. “Little People, Big World” would not have survived this long if viewers tuned in just to stare at a family that includes three dwarfs. Regular viewers tune in to watch how the family deals with challenges. Some of the challenges the family confronts are different than those found in the average family, but the emotional struggles and successes are universal.

In many ways, the creators of “Little People, Big World” have shown that little people are just like everybody else, the goal toward which the producers of the new reality television programs allegedly strive. For example, here is a brief glimpse of an article about the upcoming Spike TV reality program on wrestling:

“Spike TV executive Sharon Levy painted this as a chance for viewers to 'learn about people that are different' and how they handle unique challenges.” (click here for the full piece)

Though I have trouble believing viewers of the Spike program will come away thinking little people are no different from anyone else, if that truly is the goal, fantastic. The problem is, little people are not the key to reaching that goal. But with the success of a few reality programs that happen to include little people, the new program creators are trying to find similar success. In order to find that success, they start with little people, then build a premise around them. If they follow this formula, the result of these programs indeed will be barely different than a conveyor belt of dwarfs on display to satisfy a public curiosity. The good news is that reality programs that follow the misguided path to success will last barely a few episodes, if they even make it to television.

Eventually, when the well of aspiring reality stars runs dry, when producers discover a new path toward success, or when a critical mass of little people revolt against the industry, casting calls for little people will taper off. When that happens, reality show viewers may only be left with a husband and wife raising four children, a young doctor and her husband in Houston, and perhaps a business owner looking for success in chocolate. Programs that follow the in and outs of real people who happen to be dwarfs.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

2010 -- Happy New Year

A grateful thank you to each person who has read this blog at least once in the past year. I started 2009 with the goal of averaging three posts a month, or 36 for the year. I posted my 36th piece on December 29, 2009.

This year I plan to keep the blog going, continuing to focus on issues related to dwarfism, with an emphasis on rights, inclusion and empowerment. My personal goal is to increase the number of postings to average one per week, so 52 for the year. With the people who read this blog in mind, I also hope to integrate some variety into the format, adding more photos, some video and perhaps some other multimedia elements.

I hope every one had a happy and safe New Year's Holiday. With two days behind us already, I hope the year is starting on a positive foot.

To kick off this blog in 2010, I just want to share a link to the letters-the-editor section of a Sacramento, California publication. The lead letter is written by Dan Okenfus, a friend of mine who is also a member of Little People of America. Dan held the VP of Public Relations position for LPA before me, and has offered a lot of valuable support and guidance. Dan wrote the letter in response to a writer from the publication who dedicated an entire column to tracking down on the streets of Sacramento a prostitute who happened to be a little person.

Thanks for reading!