Sunday, April 25, 2010

The next reality star

A lot of people within the dwarfism community roll their eyes at the number of reality programs that feature people of short stature. Similarly, when producers hoping to cast the next reality show blockbuster send pitches to the dwarfism community, many people display exasperation, as if to say, "enough already with the little people reality shows." The exasperation could be well founded, for most of those who have had enough with the reality programs believe the dominance of little people on reality television is rooted in a voyeurism similar to that which fueled demand for freak shows. Despite the motivation for the creation of these reality programs, I've always felt the frequency of little people on television has had a positive impact on general awareness of dwarfism. I strongly believe that many gains little people have made in terms of social integration over the past decade can be traced back to reality television.

Though I support reality programming that features little people, I am very curious to witness what will happen later this year when Spike TV throws its hat into the ring, and airs a reality program that features a wrestler of short stature. The reason I believe most reality programs with little people are so good is that the stars of the most popular ones (Little People Big World and The Littlest Couple) use the programs to send important messages about: 1. language and 2. how little people share more similarities than differences with the rest of society. I worry that Spike TV Program may contradict those messages. The Spike program follows the founder of a "midget" wrestling troupe, who adamantly embraces the word midget and builds his business around differences between little people and the rest of the world. While, as little people, it's great to be proud of what makes us unique, when we are defined by that uniqueness, it's more likely to reinforce stigma rather that enhance the diversity of our larger society.

When the program airs, I fear it may undue some of the positive work of the other programs. But it may not. It may add one more voice to the many voices of little people now on reality programming. I was doubtful at first, but I think it may be the intention of Spike TV to show one more layer of a thick little people community. At first I thought Spike TV might be acting like a stereotypical shock jock, shocking for the sake of a larger audience, without ever intending to contribute to a constructive conversation. But a conversation I had this weekend gives me a little hope this might not be the case.

Late last year, Spike TV asked if a member of LPA wanted to participate in the reality program. Spike wanted to film a debate between the leader of the wrestlers and a member of LPA. The debate would be about the word "midget." The wrestler would support use of the word, and LPA would argue against the word. I didn't want anything to do with the debate. The debate was to be moderated by a shock jock named Mancow. With Mancow involved, I thought there was no way LPA would even have a chance to articulate an opinion. I declined the offer but a man named Tom Lash, the president of LPA's Windy City Chapter agreed to participate. He knew the debate might be a circus, but thought it important to challenge the wrestler's opinions on the word midget. The interview was recorded last December. I didn't have a chance to speak with Tom about it until last Friday, at the LPA District Six Regional event. Tom confirmed my fears. Mancow dominated the taping, making it less of a meaningful discussion or debate about language and more of a spectacle. What surprised me though is the reaction of Spike TV to the debate. According to Tom, Spike TV was disappointed that Mancow dominated the taping. Spike TV had actually hoped for a meaningful dialogue about language. In fact, after the taping, Spike even offered Tom some individual air time so he could express his side of the argument. Something Mancow may not have allowed him to do.

I am still worried about the reaction to the Spike TV Reality Program. But after talking with Tom about his experience, I am encouraged that Spike might indeed have good intentions. Rather than create a shock jock like spectacle, they may indeed just want to make a contribution and lead another voice to a very diverse dwarf community.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Moment of truth

I work for a disability rights organization in Chicago, Illinois. The organization has a civil rights team that defends against systemic and individual cases discrimination on the basis of disability. Working alongside the civil rights team, I've always hoped for a case that dealt specifically with discrimination based specifically on dwarfism. As far as I know, and according to the attorneys I've asked, no such examples exist in case law. I've always hoped for a case, not because I wish discrimination upon anyone, but because the entire dwarfism community could use the case in the future as a tool to defend against discrimination. From what anecdotal evidence I have, there is standing for a discrimination case. I heard a story once of two sisters who visited a large big box store. The store had posted a hiring notice. One sister, who is a person of short stature, asked for an application at customer service. She was told the hiring notice was no applicable. Each position had been filled. The woman of short stature tracked down her sister and told her what had happened. The other sister, not a person of short stature, while her sister waited out of view, approached the customer service desk and asked for an application. She also was not given an application but was offered a job on the stop. More recently, I read an email about a woman of short stature at a large amusement park in Florida. Now almost every dwarf who is a roller coaster enthusiast has experienced the disappointment of being denied entry on a ride because of height restrictions. In fact, one friend of mine wears lifts when he visits amusement parks. In the email I read, the woman detailed an embarrassing experience of waiting in line, finding a seat, then being asked to get off the ride. Off the ride, the operator measured her. She passed the height test then returned to the ride. A bit later, as everyone was waiting for the ride to begin, a manager appeared, who told the person of short stature she was not allowed to ride.

I am not an expert, but both cases above appear to be examples of people with dwarfism experiencing very different, and negative, treatment, based solely upon disability. If there were a piece of case law related to discrimination based upon dwarfism, people who experience situations similar to those above might have more incentive to respond to or file complaints against the offending parties.

A few weeks ago, what I have been hoping for, may have happened. I heard a story of a young woman named Lydia Aparicio who has filed a complaint against a trade school in California
(Contra Costa Times). According to the complaint, Aparicio, who was enrolled in some kind of medical assistant program, was forced to drop out of the program. She was told "her stature would preclude her from the ability to succeed in the program." If this is true, not only is the school guilty of discrimination, the school is wrong. There are at least three successful doctors who are members of Little People of America. Stature is not an impediment to the field of medicine.

I am happy a little person will have her day in court, but the cliche "be careful what you wish for" applies here. Aparicio's case has been filed by an attorney named Gloria Allred, who has previously litigated cases that involve high profile celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Aaron Spelling and Tiger Woods. On one end of the spectrum, Allred is known as a civil rights attorney protecting marginalized individuals. At worst, she been accused of "ambulance chasing" and opportunism. There is a risk here that the profile of the attorney will overshadow the issues of discrimination.

Also, there is the danger that discrimination can not be proven. The school is denying the allegations, claiming Aparicio was dropped from the program solely because she didn't fulfill academic standards. If discrimination can't be proven, it won't preclude other people of short stature to litigate in the future, but it also won't provide precedent that I believe will be very valuable in the future. Though I don't wish discrimination upon anyone, if Aparicio was forced to endure it, I wish her all the best in the legal process.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Words or Intent?

A year ago, in the wake of "The Celebrity Apprentice" episode that angered so many little people, a member of Little People of America told me she was asked, "would the episode still have been offensive if they used the word little person instead of midget?" The member said she answered "yes, it wasn't just the language, it was also the treatment of little people on the episode." I agree. Language notwithstanding, it was hard not to boil while watching the celebrities talk about little people as if they were pieces of clothing to be washed and hung out to dry. It was hard not to boil over when the celebrities acknowledged the concerns of little people then collectively decided to ignore those concerns.

Over the past year, Little People of America and the short statured community have put a lot of effort into raising awareness around language. But content from the infamous "Celebrity Apprentice" episode last year makes it obvious that, if we are advocating for equal treatment and fair portrayal, we also have to pay attention to portrayal of people of short stature in popular culture and media.

The growing discontent around the disproportionate number of reality programs that feature little people underscores this point. Last week, a producer in search of little people for a new reality program posted on the dwarfism listserve. Around three of four people responded negatively to the post. The replies to the list implied that they are tired of reality shows. Even though most of these reality programs use acceptable language when referring to people of short stature (in fact, some of even go out of the way to point out the word midget is negative), with each new reality program, a wave of backlash within the dwarfism community is growing. People feel the demand for the programs is all about putting more dwarfs on television in order to satisfy the public's curiousity for physical difference. As more and more reality programs leak from the woodwork, more and more people begin to wonder about the line separating reality programs from a carnival side show where customers pay to gawk at physical difference. Now though, people can gawk from the safety of a living room.

I understand the growing wave of discontent. But at this point, I don't agree with it. Yes, perhaps fascination over physical differences does exist. And perhaps putting dwarfs on television satisfies that fascination. But so long as dwarfs on reality programs are acting like everyday people no different from average size people except for stature, I think it's okay. And so long as most of the reality programs are educating viewers about language, I think it's a good thing.

But I have to admit, I may play favorites with language. Perhaps because I studied English in school. Last week, I was on my bike pedaling east toward the path that runs the length of Chicago along Lake Michigan. In Hyde Park, about a mile yet from the path, a group of three or four teenage boys on foot approached from the opposite direction. They were on the sidewalk. I was in the street. They saw me but none of them said any thing until I passed. When I was about 10 yards beyond the group of boys, one of them yelled out, "I hate little people!" It was not said with sarcasm, in the voice of the boy from The Sixth Sense. There was no hint of humor. Instead, the statement had a nasty tone. The voice was infused with anger.

I don't know much about hate speech, but perhaps the boy's outburst qualifies. Hate speech or not, I couldn't help but smile a little bit inside. I know what he said is wrong and I know the fact he said it indicates how much of a struggle little people still need to endure. But he said little people. And for me, that made all the difference.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A year later -- The Celebrity Apprentice

Around this time last year an episode of "The Celebrity Apprentice" incited a huge backlash among people of short stature. The Apprentice teams were challenged to develop a viral video to promote a concentrated laundry detergent. Both teams hired little people for the video. During the episode, members of both teams used offensive language when referring to people of short stature. The word midget was used even though contestants acknowledge the word to be considered offensive. Beyond language, team members more than once referred to people of short stature in objectifying ways. For example, one discussion among cast members jokes hanging little people, like clothing, out to dry.

Immediately following the episode, it was clear that many people of short stature felt the same way. The episode was offensive and people were mad. An organized response to the episode was led by a couple that live outside of New York City. They spent hours on the phone with NBC, insisting on an apology. When "The Celebrity Apprentice" creator, Donald Trump, and NBC, refused to apologize, the couple filed an official complaint with the FCC. The complaint asks the FCC to find the content on The Celebrity Apprentice objectionable. Contrary to a few media reports, the complaint does not ask the FCC to ban the word midget.

A few months after the episode of "The Celebrity Apprentice," the New York couple built support for the FCC complaint at the Little People of America Conference in Brooklyn. They passed out copies of their complaint as well as blank FCC forms. They asked others at the conference to use the blank forms to file similar complaints, the hope being that the more complaints filed about the same episode, the better the chances the FCC will respond. I don't know how many complaints have been filed, but the New York couple is very diligent and very persuasive. My guess is that scores of complaints have been lodged. Long after the conference, they continued to urge others to file complaints and they often placed calls to FCC, checking on the status of the complaint.

Though nearly a year has passed since the episode in question aired on television, from what I understand, there is still time to contact the FCC. Many people have probably forgotten about the episode that aired on April 5, 2009, and Governor Blagojevich and Cyndi Lauper have replaced Jesse James and Joan Rivers. But if enough people are angry, NBC should still be held accountable. We can't tell them what to say, and we can't force an apology, but they should at least respond. And if enough people file complaints, and if enough follow up calls are made, hopefully they will. If NBC knows we will speak up, one can only hope the network will produce more of what we want to watch, and less of what makes up cringe.

If you'd like to learn more about the original FCC complaint and if you'd like to support the original complaint, click here.