Wednesday, October 20, 2010
What Paul Steven Miller meant to me
Years ago, my mother and I watched an episode of L.A. Law that featured dwarf tossing as a story line. I don't remember all the details, but the Jimmy Smits character represented the plaintiff. A little person actor named David Rappaport defended the bar owner that hosted dwarf tossing. The court ruled in favor of the defense, freedom of choice being the key issue. After the ruling, the Smits character and the Rappaport character go out to dinner. Evidently, Rappaport had a recurring role on the show and the two lawyer characters developed a friendship. Rappaport shows up at the restaurant with an average size woman as his date. At one point during dinner, when the woman excuses herself to use the bathroom, Smits leans over to Rappaport and says something like, "She is fantastic! Where did you meet her?" The Rappaport character, with no modesty whatsoever answers something like, "She is actually a call girl." At this point, in the Arnold family room, my mother, full of concern, turns to me and says, "I hope you never hire a call girl." Fully embarrassed, I shrugged. At that point in my life, I fully believed my romantic chances with women were non-existent. More so because I was a dork than because dwarfs didn't fit the American standard of sex symbol. In hindsight, at my mother, I should have screamed, "Just because he's a dwarf doesn't mean all little people hire call girls."
Because Rappaport died in 1990, that episode must have been at least 20 years ago. But thinking about Paul Steven Miller, who died of cancer yesterday (October 19), I was reminded of the episode. I think I had once read that the Rappaport Character on L.A. Law was based on Paul Miller. Luckily the legacy of Miller in my own mind goes far beyond any episode of L.A. Law. Whether identified as part of the dwarfism community, the disability community, the legal community or the political community, Miller's achievements stand alone. Serving under the Presidential administration of Clinton, Bush the second (I think), and Obama, Miller played a critical role in the disability movement, giving voice to the rights of people with disabilities and giving people with dwarfism a voice within the disability community.
I met Miller a couple of times, at Little People of America conferences in 2002 and 2007. He was nice and treated me like an equal. Not long after the 2007 conference, Miller appeared on National Public Radio. He was interviewed about Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis. He defended the right of people with dwarfism to use pgd to purposely implant an embryo that carries the dwarfism gene. The most significant memory I have of Miller is nothing he said to me, or what I heard him say. It is of what Joseph Shapiro wrote about him in the book No Pity. No Pity is about the disability rights movement. In one section, Shapiro writes about Miller's long and arduous ordeal of applying for positions at one law firm after another following law school. Even though Miller must have been more qualified than most other applicants, time after time he was denied a position because a dwarf didn't fit the image of a lawyer. Shapiro writes, "he was rejected by each of more than 40 law firms where he interviewed. Finally, an attorney in a Philadelphia law firm explained that, although the partners were impressed by his credentials, they feared their clients might see Miller in the hallway 'and think we're running some sort of circus freak show,'(p. 28)."
If you are a person of short stature, one would think it would be devastating to realize that, 'if Paul Miller, who graduated from Harvard Law School, faces this kind of social discrimination, what chance do I have?' But far discouraging, the section about Miller was very empowering to me. I had just started working at Access Living, a strong player in the Independent Living Movement. To me, Miller's experience epitomized the main principle of the independent living movement. Yes, people with disabilities face physical and social barriers. But the root cause of those barriers is not the individual with the disability. It's the society in which the person with the disability lives. That said, people with disabilities and people with dwarfism don't have to change who we are in order to work through the barriers that stand between us and fulfilling lives. Instead, we have to change the societal systems that create those barriers.
As a person with dwarfism, who believed that he had been the victim of some sort of prejudice at one time or another in his life, it was comforting to learn that Paul Miller had experienced the same prejudice. Miller's experience gave me more energy and enthusiasm to identify with dwarfism and disability, and rail against the barriers standing between disability and full participation in the world. For that, I will always be grateful.