Sunday, June 6, 2010

Washington Post story reinforces why m word campaign is important

On Friday, the Washington Post published a story about a person of short stature wanted by the police for murder. Working on the story, the reporter who wrote the piece called me. As the reporter briefed me about the story, I remembered an interview on the national news a few years ago. The story was about a person who is Deaf in custody for an alleged crime. The national news interviewed Andy Imparato of the American Association of People with Disabilities for the story. I remember the on-air interview lasted nearly seven or eight minutes, throughout which Imparato kept stressing the same message -- a person who is Deaf should not be treated any differently under the law, but has a right to accommodations in order to access their legal rights and a fair trial. I think of that interview often as a great example of delivering a good message about disability. While the reporter spoke to me over the phone, I imagined I might be asked similar questions to those asked of Imparato. But I was wrong, the reporter wanted my thoughts about language used over the police wire.

Evidently, the person who called 911 never used the word midget to describe the alleged murderer. Rather, the caller, when describing the suspect, said something like "a 3'11" man who might be a dwarf." But the police dispatcher relayed put out an All Points Bulletin over the police wire using the word midget. The reporter, aware of LPA's efforts around language, asked what I thought of police using a word lpa is trying to wean out of the English language. Despite what LPA and little people in general think of the word, there are far worse uses of it than over a police wire. In addition, because there are still many times the word is used, both benignly and as a slur, in most cases, the little person community is better served doing proactive systemic outreach than by attacking the individual or institution responsible for using the word.

That said, I think the Washington Post story is a great example of why LPA is trying to stop use of the word midget. What didn't make it into the story, but what the reporter shared with me, is that soon after the APB went out, within police and media circles, the situation became comic. Police and media would snickered amongst themselves, asking each other sarcastically, "Have you seen the midget?" Once the description of the suspect transitioned from a 3'11" male to "a midget," the word all of a sudden dominated the situation. It was no longer about a crime, or a about a person. It was about a midget. That is one of the problems with the word. As people of short stature, dwarfism is just one element of who we are, something to take pride in, but just one piece that defines us as individuals. But because of the history behind the word, once the word midget is used to describe a person, it trumps all other elements of the person's individualism and removes their perceived humanity.

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