Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Is this the end?

At work this morning, a co-worker said, "Gary, yesterday I heard some terrible news." From the tone of her voice (the kind of voice that says 'I personally believe this is bad news but it's also fairly petty), I knew about what she referred. For the past few days, I had read internet reports that announced the sixth season of "Little People, Big World," would be the last. My co-worker was a big fan. She had just heard the news. "Say it isn't so," she moaned dramatically.

I'll bet thousands, if not millions, of people around the world share my co-worker's remorse. I don't study ratings, but it seems that over the past five years "Little People, Big World" developed a significant following. Because of the show's popularity, millions of viewers were exposed to the lives of little people, an exposure that has delivered messages about dwarfism to counter traditional stereotypical messages about little people. Each week, viewers saw a family of little people live their lives. While there were many dwarfism specific pieces to their lives, the show presented them as people, which is more than can be said about some of the less than tolerable appearances of little people on television -- a generation ago and even today.

Many times over the past few years, as spokesperson for Little People of America, I've been asked to give my opinion of reality television. Each time I've tried to deliver the message that "Little People, Big World," and the other reality programs featuring little people, send a positive message to the world - a message that dwarfs are just like everybody else, trying to live productive, successful lives and do good in the world.

But with each passing season of "Little People, Big World," grumbling about the onslaught of reality television featuring dwarfs has grown louder. More and more voices have expressed concern that reality television, rather than saving little people from social discrimination, is just a new form of exploitation. Reality television, like "midget" wrestling, side shows and "midget" cities is just an avenue for putting dwarfs on display because of their physical difference. There is probably an element of truth to this. But even if reality television perpetrates exploitation of little people, I still think the general population wouldn't be where it is today, in terms of social awareness about dwarfism, without reality television.

No matter what I think about the gains of the dwarfism community, strong opposition is beginning to take shape against reality television. With this in mind, as the organization Little People of America begins to respond to voices that are asking the organization to examine and define its relationship to entertainment, I think it's probably a good thing that "Little People, Big World" is winding down. Because if LPA does develop a new policy about what kind of entertainment is allowed or not allowed at organizational events, the voices organizing against reality television would insist that reality television be included within the umbrella of "entertainment." That's probably a good thing. Because the rules would have to apply objectively (if objectivity is possible).

That doesn't mean applying the rules wouldn't be hard. Though I think national LPA conferences are for the membership (not fans of reality tv or reality tv stars), if LPA does come up with a strict policy about entertainment, it would be strange to take the rules that apply to auditioning for munchkins at conferences and apply them to filming "Little People, Big World" at conferences. But it might make for good tv.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Subject to debate

Since I have been a member of the Board of Directors with Little People of America, there has been a lot of conversation about stereotypes stigmatizing people of short stature. This conversation begins with the question: what embodies a stereotype and what, if anything, should the organization do to deflate those stereotypes? Coinciding with the discussion around stereotypes has been outreach and action around the word midget. Last year, the organization passed a resolution recognizing the word midget as derogatory. Many people within the organization hope LPA also implements a policy that condemns, or distances the organization from, stereotypical representation of little people. I can empathize with people who are pushing for such a resolution. I personally believe that use of the m-word and stigmatized representation of little people have similar outcomes -- the dehumanization of people of short stature.

The problem is deciding what is stereotypical, or stigmatizing representation of people of short stature. LPA as an organization does not want to do anything to promote stereotypes, or worse, contribute to the dehumanization of people of short stature. But how can the organization make a concrete determination of what is a stereotype? Because it is impossible to make an objective determination of what is a stereotype, and for many other reasons, the organization has not developed an official statement or policy that distances the organization from stereotypes, at least not at this point in time.

Thinking about the relationship between use of the m-word and stereotypical representation of little people, I found the article attached to the link below very interesting. The article is about a young woman who appears in the reality program called “The Pit Boss” on the Animal Planet Channel. The program follows a guy who runs an operation that rescues pit bulls and also manages an agency that hires out little people for entertainment. The entertainment is usually elves, munchkins or something like that. Many people pushing for LPA to speak out against stereotypes would identify elf and munchkin as a stereotypical, stigmatizing role. For that matter, some people would put reality television in general into that category, arguing that many little people reality programs have been created not because of who we are as individuals, but because of what we are – dwarfs. I found the article interesting because the woman interviewed speaks out adamantly against the m-word, but she used to perform in roles such as elf and the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Characters – the Oompa Loompas. She takes no issue with these representations. In the article she says, “I never had that issue of people stereotyping me. I don’t think if you’re in an Oompa Loompa costume that it’s going to change anything.” Of course, opinions differ. That’s why I think the organization can’t develop a policy based upon opinion. If an organization creates a policy statement around “stereotypes,” how the policy is implemented will change from year to year according to the opinions of the board. Others have said that policy statements aren’t meant to please everybody. They take a stand on a particular issue. People on the opposite side of the issue may be left angry and disenfranchised.

I don’t know where the current discussion will lead. With the policy against the m-word, with our media commentary, and with our proactive outreach, I think the organization is doing a pretty good job of presentation a well balance image of people of short stature and challenging social stereotypes (this is a very biased point of view). And at this point, LPA will not have any involvement with the traditional stereotypical dwarf industries ( e.g. Radio City and Elves) unless we have diverse representation from other employment industries as well. I personally feel that if we adopt a policy that applies to the membership of the organization, we need a policy that applies to all groups and individuals equally, and does not ask for subjective judgment from a rotating membership. But that’s only my opinion.

Here is the piece from an online journal about the young woman with dwarfism.

Monday, August 9, 2010

What about the siblings?

This past weekend, I traveled to Old Greenwich Connecticut for the 2010 International Sibling Conference. My wife Katie, who has a sister with an intellectual disability, was one of the central organizers of the three day conference.

The conference provided a space for siblings of people with disabilities to share, in formal and informal settings, concerns about issues facing people with disabilities and how those issues relate to siblings of people with disabilities. In some ways, the spirit of the conference reminded me of Little People of America Conferences. While there were presentations, breakout sessions and board meetings, the conference was really about bringing together all of these people with shared experiences. When you go through life facing specific challenges and frustrations, there is something very empowering about coming face to face for the first time with others who share those challenges. On an intellectual level, you learn a lot. But emotionally, you are able to take a deep breath to gather the energy you to go back out, deal with the challenges, and more importantly, try to make the world a better place.

On one level, my favorite part of the conference was meeting Chris Burke, the actor who played Corky on "Life Goes On." I sat at the table next to his during the first full day of the conference. After lunch, which was served in a big ballroom in the midst of conference presentations, hotel staff brought huge plates of cookies to each of our tables. By the time the cookies were served, I was the only one left at my table. Everyone else had gone off to various other activities. Seven or eight people still sat at Chris' table. A few minutes after cookies were served, the cookies at Chris' table were nearly all gone while the plate at my table was still full. Chris quickly caught on. Twice during a presentation about sibling issues in Japan, he stood up, walked over to where I sat, leaned over my shoulder and grabbed a cookie. I've always been thrilled by literal and figurative brushes with greatness.

I really liked the show "Life Goes On," but more important than meeting Burke, the conference resonated in the context of my life with dwarfism. The Sibling Leadership Network was set up by siblings of people with developmental, or intellectual, disabilities, and the conference for the most part focused on developmental and intellectual disabilities. But technically, my brothers, who are both average height, are siblings. And though the issues that people with dwarfism face are different from those facing people with developmental disabilities, my siblings, and siblings of other people with dwarfism, would probably benefit by networking with other siblings. Throughout my childhood, I rarely spoke with my brothers about dwarfism, but it was a huge part of my life and there is no way it didn't impact their lives.

But in some ways, the issues of the different disability types do overlap. The issue of "attention" was raised over the weekend. Children with disabilities often get more attention than their siblings. Not many years ago, a friend of mine, who has two boys, one with and one without dwarfism, said that her child without dwarfism, in a moment of frustration, once cried out "I wanna be a little person." Unlike his brother, the son without dwarfism didn't get a national conference and two regional conferences around which his family planned vacations every year. If family vacations were planned around my brother and not me, I'd be upset also.

Speaking of attention, on the train to downtown Chicago, after the flight from Connecticut arrived at O'Hare aiport, Katie and I ran into about four or five young women. They jumped on the train just a few stops before Katie and I got off the train. They were probably leaving LaLapalooza, the music festival that was wrapping up in Grant Park. When Katie and I stood up with our luggage, getting ready to step off the train, one of the young women noticed me for the first time. She leaned over, said something to another, who then looked at me, giggled and passed it on to the others. I couldn't hear what they said. Katie was a little closer. She said she only heard one young woman say, "That's the cherry on top of my day."

When Katie stepped by them to go out the door, she said, "settle down." When I followed, I picked one of young women, looked her in the eye, and said, "grow up." It's little experiences like this that really underscore the need for a sibling group for brothers and sisters of people with dwarfism. With Katie, I am able to talk to her, and ask her what she thinks and feels when stuff like this happens. But when I was younger, I was probably too embarrassed and perhaps angry to ask my brothers. But I imagine they noticed what was happening and I imagine they would have wanted to share with someone who could relate to the experience.