Sunday, November 28, 2010

Standards of measure

In reality, just as I held the Village of Bartlett to a different standard than bar owners in Chicago, I hold many people and entities to different standards. For example, though we are in the 21st Century and have progressed in terms of inclusion and diversity as a society, a handful of radio shock jocks and stand-up comedians still today use the word midget and people of short stature as the punchline of a joke or routine. For the most part, when the organization Little People of America hears about an offense by a comedian or radio dj, the organization won't respond, for the same reason democrats running for office don't try to convert far right leaning republicans. There isn't much chance of conversion. Instead they target people whose political beliefs fall more toward the center. But, to use the political analogy again, when someone on prime time, mainstream television uses the word midget as a slur or a punchline, it's like a candidate betrayed by someone within his or her own political party. One would expect support from another within your party. And, one would expect that a prime time television program would be more in touch and sensitive to marginalized communities. That's why, in the spring of 2009, when contestants on the "Celebrity Apprentice" -- used the word midget several times, put people of short stature in exploitative positions, and spoke disparagingly about people of short stature -- the little person community responded strongly. It is more dangerous when such an offense happens on prime time because millions of people are exposed to it. And it's one thing for a shock jock to condone ridiculing little people, but if a prime time program condones the behavior, it sends the wrong message to millions of people. So again, just like the Village of Bartlett, Donald Trump and "The Celebrity Apprentice," were held to a different standard.

Recent news from England made me think again about the double standards. Public servants and individuals who are voted into office serve the public. Therefore, one would hope that they are aware of and sensitive to each constituency they represent. But in England, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently came under fire for repeating a heightist joke aimed at John Bercow, who is the Commons Speaker. Bercow is 5' 6". Evidently, the Health Minister in England, Simon Burns, crashed into Bercow's car. When Bercow said he wasn't happy, Burns responded to affect of, "Well, which one are you?"(if you are not "Happy," which one of the seven dwarfs are you.) Last June, Burns also referred to Bercow as a "sanctimonious dwarf." The Walking with Giants Foundation (the one representing people with primordial dwarfism), responded quickly, and Burns apologized.

This past week, when talking with reporters, Prime Minister Cameron repeated the "Happy" incident, and the joke, to a group of journalists. The Walking with Giants Foundation again responded. In a public statement, the Foundation said, "It was bad enough having a minister of health make similar distasteful comments but to have the Prime Minister himself glorify the comments in a joke is totally unacceptable and downright appalling." The Foundation has accused Cameron of harassment and has called for talks with the Prime Minister.

I think that people of short stature should hold public officials to different standards. The goal of Little People of America and other groups that represent people of short stature is to impact a world in which people with dwarfism have access to the same opportunities and can live in equality with people of average, or typical, stature. In reality, people of short stature, in the United States, in England, and around the world, are often treated, or viewed, differently than the rest of the population. If we are to have any chance of achieving our goals, we need Prime Ministers, and all elected officials, working with us, not against us. Congratulations to the Walking with Giants Foundations for holding Cameron accountable.

by a group representing people with primordial dwarfism

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Down for the count...or, Who is ready to rock out in Bartlett!

I guess I can't hold a grudge against the Village of Bartlett. If I did, it'd be hypocritical of me not to place the same blame on the city of Chicago. Last Tuesday evening, the Bartlett board approved a permit request from Bannerman's Sports Bar, (here is coverage of the issue in the Daily Herald). With the permit, Bannerman's now has permission to host a midget wrestling event later in November. For some reason I held the Village Board of Bartlett to a different standard than the bars in Chicago that host midget wrestling. If the decision is solely in the hands of the bar owners whether or not they host midget wrestling, I probably don't have much of a chance to appeal to their priorities. The bar that hosts the event in Chicago won't take seriously anything I have to say. But in Bartlett, the village board had to approve the priorities of the bar owner. I thought I had a chance to appeal to the board's sensibilities. I was wrong.

I find the board's decision interesting in the context of some stipulations that were placed on the permit approval. During the course of debate around the issue, board members implied that they don't want the decision to be about morality. They wanted to make the decision based upon safety and economics, not based on their opinions of right and wrong. If that is the case, than why did the vote come with the caveat that Bannerman's may never use to the permit to host jello wrestling or mud wrestling? Unless, the chance of injury during a jello wrestling match is greater than the chance of two little people injuring themselves while stapling and thumbtacking each other in the forehead.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Around 2001 or 2002, I tried to stop a group called the Bloody Midgets from performing in Chicago. They had a show at a bar up near Wrigley Field. My issue wasn't that the performers wrestled, it was that the marketing of the event and the implementation of the event stigmatized little people and underscored traditional stereotypes of little people. Because they referred to themselves as midget wrestlers and because they consistently used the word midget during the show, the act objectified little people and encouraged the public to think of us as different. The Bloody Midgets eventually stopped performing at the Wrigleyville bar. A few years later, they changed their named to the Pint Size Brawlers and returned to Chicago to a bar in the River North section of town. The new name still kind of tokenized little people, but at least the word midget wasn't used. But the marketing still referred to the event as midget wrestling and the event itself still incorporated the word. In early 2006, I tried to stop them again but the new bar owners didn't care what I or anyone else against midget wrestling believed. At the time, I asked Little People of America for some support. Though some leaders within LPA were sympathetic, they couldn't take an official stand. The organization tried not to take positions that passed judgment of the employment decisions of members. I could understand. The issue is very subjective. While I was ready to protest midget wrestling, others in the organization might be ready to protest Radio City for casting little people as elves. I wouldn't want to protest Radio City. But who am I to say midget wrestling is worse than dressing up as an elf?

With this in mind, later in 2006, when I joined the board of directors for LPA, I made an unofficial and very personal pledge not to protest against other little people who make employment decisions that I believe may harm the public perception of little people. In addition to the idea that I shouldn't cast a subjective opinion on the decisions of others, I also thought time and resources would be better spent if we focused on positive, systemic changes -- for example encouraging style guides, dictionaries to identify the word midget as negative. In my position with LPA, I often get calls from newspapers in small towns where the Half-Pint Brawlers, or another group called the microwrestlers, are booked. The reporters ask for my opinion about the wrestling show. Trying to keep the pledge in mind, I usually just focus on the word midget, expressing concern about what message the word might send to the audience.

But the pledge was broken a month or so ago after I learned about a bar in Bartlett, Illinois that is trying to bring in the Half-Pint Brawlers. In order to do so, the bar needs to secure an events permit. The owner of the bar had to appear before the Bartlett Planning Commission, then the village board in order to earn approval for the permit. Just before the planning commission meeting, I asked a group of people to reach out to the commission and ask the members to reject the permit request. I am sure it had much more to do with local residents who don't want the bar hosting events for reasons that have nothing to do with midget wrestling, but the planning commission recommended that the bar not receive a permit. But the planning commission doesn't have the final say. It only makes recommendations. The village board actually makes the decision. Just before the village board met a few weeks ago, I reached a larger group of people, asking them to send a note to the board. Turns out, no vote was taken at the meeting. They only talked about the issue, and heard directly from the leader of the Pint Size Brawlers. A vote is scheduled for this Tuesday, November 16. According to a newspaper article, the bar has the support it needs from the board, and will get the permit. In the article, at least one of the board members said the decision shouldn't come down to morality. The board members shouldn't cast ballots based on whether or not a little person should or not participate in such an event. I wonder though, if, instead of little people, the performers were members of marginalized ethnicity or race, and they promoted use of slurs against that particular minority, at what point morality would come into play.

Monday, November 8, 2010


This year, the Chicago Humanities Festival integrated four or five events with a strong disability narrative into its festival showcase. One piece of the programming was a performance of GIMP, a project of Heidi Latsky Dance. GIMP (here is a review in the Chicago Tribune) is a modern dance routine that includes about six dancers, at least three of whom are people with disabilities. I had seen GIMP in 2009, the only other time it was performed in Chicago. I was very excited to watch the performance again. I am not a huge fan of modern dance or any type of dance. But to me, GIMP embodies the vision of disability rights. The dancers perform upon a stage on which disability and non-disability are equal and integrated. But for a few minutes of the performance when I believe the audience was forced to focus on one dancer's disability, the routine is not about trumpeting disability. It's about bringing together on one stage people who want to dance and people who have worked very hard in order to dance.

Of course, by its very nature, the performance forces an audience to examine disability, or at the very least examine the notion of the body. After the performance, the dancers all returned to the stage for a question and answer session with the audience. During the session, the founder of the company, Heidi Latsky, talked about the dancing world. She, and a male dancer, explained that traditionally, dance is about people with exquisite bodies (tall, slender, toned) perfecting very nuanced, delicate and athletic motions. But with GIMP, the stage is filled with dancers whose bodies don't fall under the traditional norms of exquisite. The dancers showcase both the 'normal' and 'impaired' pieces of their bodies. One dancer said that the project is about moving the pieces of our bodies that are vulnerable. Vulnerable because society teaches us to hide the disabled, or less exquisite, pieces of ourselves and showcase the most high functioning piece of ourselves. With that in mind, another dancer said that people with physical disabilities are taught to operate between the chin and the top of the head. In other words, let the mind compensate for what ails the body. GIMP highlights the body, no matter the body type. I think the challenge is creating a piece of work that, standing alone - separate any connection to disability, is beautiful. Except for the moment of the routine I mention above, I think they did it.

For how thrilling I thought the performance was last night, what may stick with me longer than memories of the dancers moving on stage is another message one of the dancers sent during the question and answer piece. At one point he said something to the affect of, "inhabit your body like never before." He meant be proud of it. Show it off. Use it. For all marginalized groups, but for purposes of this blog, especially people with dwarfism, those are very important words. By popular culture, and by the community in which we live, too often people with dwarfism are delivered a message that our bodies are, at best, something to hide, and at worst, the punchline of a joke. Unfortunately, this message is often delivered with about as much candor as a frying pan pounded over our heads. Keeping the words of the GIMP dancer in mind is easier said than done when confronted with bigotry. I certainly can't do it all the time. But if one is able to remember the words, even in the face of pain, I think it makes a difference. And until the rest of the world reflects the stage on which GIMP is performed, those words will be an important resource.