Saturday, February 27, 2010

That time of year

A few years ago, around this time of year, a reporter called. She asked if people of short stature face more pronounced social stigma near St. Patrick's Day. Evidently, before my tenure with the Little People of America Board of Directors, the same reporter had spoken to one of my predecessors. The LPA spokesperson at that time told the journalist that because little people are so closely associated to the role of the Leprechaun, around St. Patrick's Day, all people of short stature, whether we dress up as Leprechauns or not, risk being approached by drunken, or not so drunken, strangers who want to rub our heads or rub our bellies hoping for an elusive pot of gold, or at least a bit of luck.

Though I can't tie any of my run-ins with strangers directly to the St. Patrick's Day Holiday, I've had a fair share of run-ins with strangers who, because of my physical difference, believe I've lost my right to personal space. These people pat me on the head (perhaps for luck, but more likely because I am adorable) or ask personal questions they wouldn't consider asking a stranger of average stature. I think the invisible wall of personal space that most of us grant others sometimes breaks down between people of short stature and thoughtless strangers because the stranger can not make the connection between physical difference and humanity.

People of short stature deal with this disconnect year round, not just around St. Patrick's Day. In my mind, the best way to bridge the gap between physical difference and humanity is awareness and the promotion of images that portray people of short stature as regular people. Clearly, the community of people of short stature has taken tremendous steps forward in the past decade in terms of awareness. Almost every day, cable television broadcasts reality shows that feature people of short stature living like regular people. At this point, reality shows that feature people of short stature are so common that some people are beginning to roll their eyes. But whatever the intention of the reality show producers, most of the shows operate on the premise that little people may do some things differently, but in the end, we are just like everybody else. Reality shows in theory make the connection between physical difference and humanity.

On the other hand, Leprechauns are not human. Leprechauns are fictional characters based on fantasy. It's absurd to argue that the average stranger who sees a little person at a bar on St. Patrick's Day dressed as a Leprechaun believes the little person is actually a magical person. But I do believe an argument can be made that casting a little person as a Leprechaun reinforces traditional stigma that has made it very difficult for all little people, in certain situations, to be treated as equals. That stigma creates a space between physical difference and humanity. With this mind, the former spokesperson of LPA had a point. Around St. Patrick's Day, when images of Leprechauns, particularly little people portraying Leprechauns, become common, traditional stigma against difference is reinforced. As a result, people of short stature may have reason to be a little cautious of drunk people at bars or rude people on the street.

With that said, besides a number of posts to a dwarfism listserve I follow in search of little people to hire as a Leprechaun for a party, the last few St. Patrick's Days have been fairly quiet. In my role with LPA, there have been no inquiries from reporters and, knock on wood, no one has tried to steal my pot of gold. Because it has been quiet, I didn't think too much about a new ad campaign by the Illinois Lottery. The campaign, mostly billboards and video billboards around town, feature a person, who is clearly a dwarf, dressed as a Leprechaun. In a variety of situations, the character is alluding average stature people who want his gold. The campaign advertises the Illinois Lottery's Million Dollar St. Patrick's Day prize.

I would have preferred if the Illinois Lottery hadn't used a little person for the part, but I didn't think too hard about the ads until yesterday. A friend who I met through my wife sent me a text. She had just seen the ad for the first time. She was offended. She believed the ad objectified little people. The thing about my friend, she is a doer. She walked up to the clerk of the store that posted the lottery ad, it was one of those life size cardboard cut-outs. She said to the clerk, "I think you should take it down." Surprisingly, the clerk said, "why don't you just take it yourself." So she did. My friend didn't stop there. She went to an office of the Illinois Lottery in downtown Chicago and spoke to a lottery official. She asked the official to pull the ads.

How to respond to roles that may objectify little people has always been a very tough issue for Little People of America. Some people feel the organization needs to take a strong stand against such roles. Some say we should in no way associate with companies that might reinforce traditional dwarf stereotypes. In fact, some members of LPA have dropped out of the organization because Radio City auditions for elves at National Conferences. On the other side of the issue, people argue that there is no objective way to determine what is a "good" role for people of short stature, and what roles are demeaning. Therefore, who is LPA to say one role is good and another is bad. For that reason, Little People of America should not respond to the issue. Another argument claims that it is unfair to draw a direct connection between so-called objectifying roles of little people and the general treatment of little people. If someone on the street condescends to me with a big grin and a "you're so cute," how can I blame that on a person who got paid to be a Leprechaun on St. Patrick's Day.

The membership is clearly divided on the issue. With that in mind, officially, LPA supports the right of a little person to make their own employment decisions. Whatever the official position is, I'd rather the role of a Leprechaun be cast to the cool looking guy bending Ralph's ear above. But if the job goes to a little person, so be it. That said, I am happy my friend took down the lottery ad and I am happy she spoke to the lottery official. LPA can't follow up on her visit with a bunch of phone calls or emails, but sharing opinions and sharing information is a good thing. No one can force the lottery official, the person who was hired for the ads, or me, what to do. But it never hurts to take a step back and examine the decisions we make. My friend forced a few people to think about their decisions. In the end, if we are going to make good decisions, we have to have access to information. I thank my friend for putting some more information into the hands of a few people.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

High school spirit

A year and a half ago, a resident of Dickinson, North Dakota sent me an email. The resident expressed concern about the high school mascot, "Midgets." At the time, I thanked the resident and said that at some point I would, as a member of Little People of America, like to address the issue. I knew then that the major problem with confronting such an issue would be resources. A witness to what has happened with the University of Illinois Mascot, I know LPA doesn't have to the resources to convince a town, no matter what size, to change the name of its mascot.

A few years before receiving the e-mail from Dickinson I was contacted by a member of LPA, who told me about a school in Hurley, Wisconsin and another somewhere in Illinois with midgets or fighting midgets as the mascot. The member suggested I stop worrying about "midget wrestling" and address the issue of "midget" mascots. Since the email from Dickinson, I've received similar emails from one or two others, in different parts of the country. To the best of my knowledge, there are at least four or five schools around the country with "midget" as the mascot.

Though I still believe a volunteer-run organization based in Southern California will have a difficult time persuading a town to change the name of its mascot, I had set myself the goal of organizing and initiating a campaign to confront the issue of mascots before my term as Vice President of Public Relations expires (summer 2011). My vision for the campaign isn't to make specific demands of schools and school boards, but to organize visits to each town, where members of Little People of America would make a presentation at each of the schools and to each school board. In the course of the presentations, we wouldn't ask that the school change the name of its mascot, but we would explain what the word means to us, and explain how difficult it would be to attend the school as a person of short stature and how difficult it would be to send our children to the school. Rather than make demands, we would equip the community with a perspective.

On Tuesday, the Dickinson resident sent me another email. Evidently, at least one member of the School Board wants to raise the issue now. The email included a link to a local story in
The Dickinson Press . The story quoted School Board President Dean Rummel, who expressed concerns about the mascot. Rummel allowed his phone number to be published for the story, and asked that readers call him and share their thoughts. I called the number and left a message. Soon after, he called back. We talked for a little bit. I told him that LPA would support any effort to change the name of the mascot and suggested that LPA plan a visit to North Dakota.

I am excited about the events of the past week. Though I wasn't prepared to start work on a campaign around high school mascots, Dickinson has presented a great opportunity. Considering the support for a name change that exists already in Dickinson, and the fact that a few people have stuck out their necks (in the 1990's, four school board members were 'recalled' for supporting a name change) it would be unwise and unfair and even a bit treasonous not to act now.

It won't be easy. After all, use of the word "midget" for a mascot puts a positive spin on the word, perhaps the only positive use of the word of which I know. The mascot was coined in the mid 20th century, when a radio broadcaster, calling a play by play for the high school basketball team used the word. At one point in the game, the broadcaster referred to the Dickinson team as "our midgets." It was a David and Goliath type reference. The Dickinson team was outsized and over-matched, but they stuck with their opponents, competing with them basket for basket. The name stuck. And decades later, there is a huge amount of pride attached to the mascot.

But for thousands of people of short stature, the reality is that the word is rooted in objectification. Despite the context, the word limits our humanity. The bottom line is, no matter how one defines the word, as I said earlier, if I were a student, or a parent, there is no way I would be comfortable linked to a school with "midget" as the mascot.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Shriver follow-up

Last week, I wrote about Tim Shriver of the Special Olympics reaching out to Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's Chief of Staff, over Emanuel's use of the r-word. Shriver sent a letter to Emanuel which was shared widely within and the without the disability community. I was impressed with the letter because Shriver didn't ask for an apology and didn't set up Emanuel for a public flogging. Rather, he tried to engage Emanuel in the systemic effort to raise awareness around language and end use of the r-word.

Events over the past week have reinforced my opinion that Shriver took the correct strategic approach. Early in the week, the White House set up a meeting between Emanuel, Shriver, and a few other leaders from disability. I don't know exactly when, but sometime before the meeting news broke that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin called for the resignation of Emanuel. Palin has a child who is a person with Down Syndrome. I can understand what might have motivated Palin to make the statement. Just yesterday, I spoke with a friend of mine who has a sister with an intellectual disability. When I asked him his thoughts on language, he told about his mother, who, when he and his sister were children, would verbally attack anyone who used the r-word. Whether you have a family connection to disability or you don't, some people feel so strongly about language they have no choice but to aggressively and harshly attack use of offensive language. In fact, I've read that some people believe Palin's attack on Emanuel opened the door for the meeting with Shriver.

The problem with Palin's approach is that the intent of the attack is not clear. Perhaps her intent was the same as Shriver's, engage more people in an effort to use inclusive, people first, and empowering language. But, given Palin's place in politics, her actions could easily be interpreted as a left hook against the democratic party. Events later in the week made it a little easier to judge Palin's intent. During his program on Wednesday, Conservative Radio Host Rush Limbaugh said, "There’s going to be a retard summit at the White House. Much like the beer summit between Obama and Gates and that cop . . ."

Limbaugh's comment put Palin in a sticky political situation, but one in which she could have rallied more non-partisan support around language and disability rights, if she had held Limbaugh to the same standard as Emanuel. She didn't. In a piece published on the

Whether it matters or not, Limbaugh did use the word in a similar context. He used it in an effort to degrade democrats and people in the White House.

Unfortunately, in the coverage around Emanuel, Palin and Limbaugh, the goal Shriver and thousands of others has taken a back seat. It's the partisan hatred which is earning attention, not the effort to embrace language adopted by people with disabilities.

But in Chicago, one media spokesperson is shining light on the correct issue. Here is a link to brief commentary by Rob Johnson, who has a sibling with a disability.