Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Yesterday, a couple of people I work with delivered a short presentation on "ableism" during Access Living's staff meeting. Ableism is systems, structures and attitudes that contribute to the marginalization, segregation or oppression of people with disabilities. One example of ableism could be hosting a public forum in a space that is not accessible to people who use wheelchairs. The two people who presented had delivered the same workshop a few months earlier at the United States Social Forum. During the discussion after the presentation, one person on the Access Living staff raised a point about attitudes. He said that attitudes are not the problem. Attitudes, he explained are created by systems. Therefore, attitudes are a manifestation of a system. If you want to change what a person thinks, don't try to change his or her attitude, change the system that influenced the attitude.

His statements triggered thoughts of my efforts with Little People of America. From an advocacy standpoint, a major goal of Little People of America is to change people's attitudes about people of short stature. On websites, youtube, and the streets, attitudes that view little people as nothing but a punchline or comic relief still exist. The statement of my co-worker at the staff meeting made me question the work of LPA, "is it the wrong approach to try and change the attitudes of people who think a little person walking down the street constitutes entertainment?"

I think the answer is no. The person who made the statement at the staff meeting has written a book, teaches high level courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and sounds a lot smarter than I do when he speaks. As a result, he made me question what I and others have been doing since 2006 with Little People of America.

But I think what the professor said, and what LPA does, are quite similar. Although I think of LPA as trying to change attitudes, we can't do that without changing systems. If we approached the webmaster of a site that demeaned people of short stature, he or she would probably either ignore us or laugh at us. We couldn't change that attitude because the webmaster lives in a world in which little people are nothing but dehumanized objects. In order to change the behavior of the webmaster, we'd have to change the world in which he or she lived, opening up his or her perception of little people to one of people with full personalities, characters and lives. That's not to say individuals within LPA never respond to offensive comments or actions of people or establishments. But in doing so, we are not only trying to change what the entity thinks or does (attitudes), we are trying to open up the world in which it exists (systems).

In terms of language, I think the professor made a good point. For example, use of the word midget. Is LPA better off attacking any entity that uses the word out of ignorance and malice? or influencing the creation of systems that don't use the word (getting the word phased out of style guides, identified as negative in dictionaries, etc..). But in both cases, in order to change an attitude, the world around the attitude must be changed first.

In the end, I don't think it matters if we refer to the work of Little People of America or other groups as changing attitudes or changing systems. What really matters is if we are doing our best to create an inclusive world that embraces diversity.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the eloquent eye-opener, Gary. It seems to me beyond doubt that systemic oppression molds attitudes.

    And yet I'm always left wondering: did the attitudes create the systems, and if so, how does one get at the deep roots of those weeds?

    And also: once such cancerous attitudes spread into the marrow of our culture's bones, does changing systems have much of an effect on the immediate disease?

    Your task seems (to me) overwhelming, and I applaud you & your comrades in the social justice community for each day wielding your anti-ignorance weedwackers.