A week ago, September 26, I went with a friend to the Illinois Holocaust Museum to hear a talk by Matt Roloff of Little People, Big World. From the day I first read the listing in a Skokie Illinois Newspaper, announcing Roloff's visit to the museum, I'd been looking forward to the lecture, mostly because of my curiosity about what Roloff might say. Whoever we are, the Holocaust holds a significant place in our individual conscience. I was fascinated to hear what connection Roloff would make between what he had to say and the place in which he was speaking.
Roloff spoke for about an hour. Kicking off the lecture, Roloff did make a connection to the Holocaust and people of short stature, alluding to a woman named Liebe Perla and her family, a group of musicians who were dwarfs. During World War II, Perla and her family survived Auschwitz because Mengele kept them alive in order to conduct experiments upon them. Roloff put that story in the context of his own life, explaining that as a young boy, he spent months and months in hospitals. Although he had many surgeries that were necessary, Roloff said he was often subject to poking, prodding and pictures at the whim of doctors. Examinations that made him feel less like a patient, and more like an experiment.
I don't doubt it. When Roloff's generation and my generation was young, not much was known about dwarfism. I have memories of standing naked up against a wall as a four or five year, with a team of doctors before me perplexed by the curvature of my back and legs. Today, I am grateful for the brace that straightened my back and the surgeries that straightened my legs. Without them, I probably wouldn't be able to do many of the activities I do today. But even a four year old tries to maintain some dignity. I'm not sure if such a public examination is necessary.
Roloff linked the prejudicial treatment of Liebe Perla and the objectifying treatment that he experienced as a young boy to contemporary decisions that reflect prejudice against people of short stature. He said he knew of a couple who wanted to have a child. Through either in vitro or preimplantation genetic diagnosis, they wanted a dwarf child. But their wish was refused. No one would implant them with an embryo that carried the gene for dwarfism. People with dwarfism certainly face challenges that are specific to dwarfism. But everyone faces challenges. To presume that the challenges of a dwarf compared to the challenges of another person are more significant, and justify decisions that suggest a dwarf's life is unworthy of living, is certainly reflective of prejudice against people of short stature.
To change attitudes, or systems (see schooled, September 29), that deny people with dwarfism a choice offered to typical statured people will not be easy. Even after the work of people like Billy Barty, the founder of Little People of America, and the Roloffs, who have opened up the minds of millions of people about dwarfism, we still face systemic barriers that deny us what others are offered. But even if it's one person at a time, if Matt and others continue to share their stories, like he did in Skokie at the Holocaust museum, minds will open up and understand that far more connects the lives of little people with others than separates it.