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.

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