Sunday, February 27, 2011

What would you do?

"What would you do?" is a prime time program on the ABC Network. The program creates situations in order to put average people into controversial situations in which they are forced to make a decision. Usually the decision involves either turning the other way, in so doing enabling a perpetrator to get away with questionable actions, or standing up to the perpetrator. The episode last week involved scenarios submitted by the public. Casey Hubelbank, a member of Little People of America, pitched a scenario that was chosen by the program. The scenario involved what many little people are familiar with and what has been written about on this blog a few times -- little people as the subject of uninvited photos.

Casey's pitch was successful and ABC taped a scene that involved the picture taking scenario. The scene ran in last week's episode.

The scenario was much more extreme than most I have experienced. Usually, strangers try to sneak a picture from a car or behind your back. In the scenario shared on television, the perpetrators made no secret about their intentions. For purposes of television, ABC probably needed to go with an extreme situation.

I applaud Casey for approaching ABC with the idea and I applaud ABC for pursuing the idea. On the day of the program and immediately following the program, many Facebook friends of mine who are little people posted comments about the program on their wall. They thanked Casey for bringing attention to an issue faced by many, many little people. Many who posted remarked that they, at some point in their lives, had been forced to deal with a similar situation. Though we all know the experience is common to little people, watching as the issue was addressed on television was empowering. In a way, validated our frustrations and identified the scenario on prime time television, not as the unfortunate collateral damage of curiosity, but as harassment. Also, just as shows like "Little People Big World" have removed ignorance as an excuse for using the word 'midget,' this episode of "What would you do?" will help deny the perpetrators of harassment against little people any justification.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Public spaces

A few days ago, a friend and colleague of mine sent me a link to an article by Laura Hershey called "More thoughts about Public Space." Hershey died last year. She was a fierce disability rights advocate who I met once or twice and rallied with in 2007 at the National ADAPT action in Chicago.

The piece by Hershey contrasts how people with disabilities and those without disabilities interact with public spaces. Interaction in public, particularly people with dwarfism interacting with people without dwarfism interests me, so I was eager to read Hershey's piece. The article is a follow-up to another piece of Hershey's called, appropriately, Some thoughts on Public Space. I haven't read the first piece, but I believe it deals with attitudes of non-disabled people toward people with disabilities in public spaces. In the 'more thoughts' piece, Hershey makes three specific observations about how people without disabilities use public spaces. Her first observation, more than the others, resonated with me personally. She writes "Privileged bodies tend to move through public spaces with limited consideration of the presence of other bodies." (Hershey uses the term 'privileged body.' I am going to stick with non-disabled body). Hershey says the opposite is true for people with disabilities. Speaking alone of my perspective, I agree.

Last night, a local gay rugby team, The Chicago Dragons, put on a team fundraiser. The fundraiser was a drag show. Volunteers from the team dressed in drag and performed a few numbers in front of a screaming audience. A guy I work with is a member of the dragons and he performed at the fundraiser last night. I, along with about seven others from Access Living, went to the show. I knew there was going to be a large rowdy crowd. From the moment I walked into the club, I started stategizing about how to position myself in such a way that a) I wouldn't be boxed in; and b)I would be able to see the stage. Of the other people in my group, three were wheelchair users. They had a similar amount of work cut out for them in order to both see the show and maintain some amount of personal space. Our group also had to work around the obstacle of a security guard who kept telling us not to block the passageways. In order to maintain a clear path in the bar, maintain a sight line to the stage and maintain some personal space, took a bit of work. But we were successful.

For me, this is kind of standard operating procedure. Because most spaces weren't created with people my size in mind, the spaces don't always work. So what I usually do is find a space that works, and stick to it. For example, if I go down hill skiing, I can bet the chair lifts might be a challenge. So if I am at a hill with four or five lifts, and I find one that works and that has an operator who is willing to slow the lift down a bit, I will stick to that lift for most of the day. Another example is concert halls. There is this one place in Chicago where I've seen a number of shows. I know from experience that there are a limited number of seats in the hall that will work well for me even if everyone at the concert is standing up. So whenever I go to a concert there, I make sure to get there early to choose one of those seats.

But I am talking about how I relate to public space. Hershey's observation is about how people without disabilities relate to public space. This takes us back to the drag show last night. Our group had managed to find a good spot near the stage but in a corner so we had some room to breath. As the club grew more crowded and once the show started, more and more people edged up toward the front in order to see. Some of the people, who were tall and I am guessing were non-disabled, stepped right in front of a few members of the Access Living group (interestingly, they stepped in front of the Access Living people who appeared non-disabled. Not the chair users and not myself). At one point, one of the Access Living group had to move from the spot she had staked out. She ended up standing right behind me. "There is a big dude blocking my space," she said. The actions of the people who moved up toward the front once the show started reinforce Hershey's observation. But I also witnessed several people wander in front of me. They'd stand in front of me a few moments, blocking my view, then look around, observing their surroundings. Soon enough, they'd spot me behind them. Each person, once he spotted me, would apologize and move on, enabling me to see the show again.

I think Hershey brings up an interesting point. But even she, in the piece, is quick to say that she is not an expert. She is just making observations. I do think that some people with disabilities, depending on the experience, are much more observant of their surroundings and as a result may be more sensitive when interacting with others who share a common space, (for goodness sake, I sometimes turn around to make sure I am not blocking someone's view (though I don't know whose view I could block)). And there are examples of people without disabilities who appear to be insensitive to others who share a common space.

But I think these are just examples, and by no means represent all people without disabilities. Perhaps they represent a majority in each group, but I am not sure. That's a great thing about a blog. One is free to share observations and experiences. Who knows if those experiences represent the majority. But what matters is that they resonate with the blogger.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Traveling Abroad

My first semester senior year of college, I traveled to Kenya through a study abroad program with St. Lawrence University in Upstate New York. Traveling abroad was probably the best decision I made in college and the four months I spent in Kenya are probably the most influential and memorable four months of my life so far.

Nearly 20 years have passed since I made the trip, but many of the experiences and the people I met through the program are still fresh in my mind. Of those experiences, one which I have already written about is how I was received by the Kenyan population as a white person and as a person of short stature. Twenty six students were in my program. All but a few of us were white. The orientation taught us that, as whites, we may be treated differently. We quickly learned the word Muzumgu, which is the Swahili Language slang term for white person. I was the only person of short stature in the program. Though nothing in the orientation covered treatment of people of short stature, I anticipated that my experience in Kenya as a little person might be different from my experience as a little person in the United States, particularly at a tiny Midwestern school at which everyone knew my name.

Indeed, the experience was different. Strangers in Nairobi treated me no different than strangers do in Chicago, but farther away from large urban areas, the experiences became a little extreme, and in some cases a little surreal. My first week in Kenya, in a small town several hours west of Kenya, as I walked through a large outdoor market with my host brothers, a gigantic crowd, howling and laughing, followed us. My host brothers, trying to protect me, kept glancing my direction and commenting, "Everyone is so happy to see you!" When I was not looking, my brothers would kick dirt at the throngs of people and motion with their arms to stay back.

Later in the semester, at a very remote village, I was mobbed by what felt like the entire village. We were only at the village for a little while, but it seemed like I spent every moment being touched or patted or poked. But sometimes, even far away from Nairobi, everything felt normal, sometimes even more normal than Chicago. About half way through the semester, for my internship, I went on my own to a small town for several weeks. I have no memory at all of ever being treated differently there, either as a white person or a little person. Similarly, I spent a couple of nights with one other student in a tiny village. Far from being mobbed by the residents as had happened at the other village, the other student and I became one of the community for a few days, spending our time herding goats and cows like everyone else in the village. I attracted attention, not because I looked physically different, but because I accidentally herded my set of goats into a prickly bush.

Last week, my wife and I traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The University of VI had invited my wife to present two days worth of workshops on supports for siblings of people with disabilities. Lucky me, I got to tag along.

Now, it would have been insulting, ignorant and naive of me to assume that my experience in the Virgin Islands, as a person of short stature, would mirror my experience in Kenya. But I don't travel abroad (though technically I don't think the U.S. Virgin Islands is abroad) very often. And as we prepared for our trip to the Caribbean, I wondered what it would be like in the Virgin Islands. And as I wondered, I was reminded of my experiences in Kenya.

More than half way into the trip, I pondered aloud to my wife if people on the islands were aware of the m-word. My wife said that was ridiculous. Of course people know the word. But I hadn't heard the word used once and I didn't hear the word used once. Not only that, I wasn't treated much differently than anyone else. The big test came one day when we were out and about just as school let out. We were walking among scores of young kids in their school uniforms. The kids didn't appear to pay us any attention. Not even in Chicago, where I have lived since 1992, can I walk amongst a group of school kids without some bit of attention.

This is not to say everything was perfect. Once, paying for a mango at a fruit stand, my wife was advised by the vendor that I should join the circus and earn some good money.

In some ways, it's too bad that when I am about to enter a new situation, or a new group of people, I wonder how I will be received as a person of short stature. But I also guess that feeling that way is only natural, considering that so many of my experiences have been impacted in one way or another by how strangers embrace or reject difference. With this in my, it was quite refreshing to go to a new place that, for the most part, treated difference as if it were a natural part of the human condition.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The jokes are on me

A few days ago, Dan Kennedy posted a piece called You just can't keep a good word down on his Media Nation Blog. Kennedy, who has a daughter with dwarfism, is the author of a well-known and well-read book within the dwarfism community called Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes. Kennedy's blog piece is in response to a comment Bernard Goldberg made on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor." Referring to the ratings of Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, Goldberg compared Olbermann to "the tallest midget in the room." Kennedy makes the point in his blog that although reality television and advancements in the information and technology world have spread constructive awareness about dwarfism, and although media outlets such as The New York Times and the Associated Press have made deliberate attempts to eliminate use of the word midget, certain sectors of the media still use the word midget and present embarrassing portrayals of little people.

As I probably have noted several times on this blog, I am no expert, but I am pretty interested in, as Kennedy writes, "two things: how people with dwarfism are depicted in popular culture and the continued debate over the word 'midget.'" (The ironic piece is that Kennedy suggests people outside the dwarfism community are obsessed with the two things. I for one am in the community and am pretty engaged, if not obsessed). With that engagement, or obsession, in mind, I think there has been an evolution in the use of the word midget within outlets that still use it. Minus use of the word to identify a sports division for younger kids, in the more mainstream media, the word is used much more as a slur, or a derogatory statement. The exact joke made by Goldberg on Fox has been made at least two other times in recent memory, once by Mark Cuban to slam Starbucks Via Coffee and once by Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated to exemplify mediocrity within college basketball. It appears that benign, innocent, ignorant use of the word is tailing off. This is most likely because awareness of the word has indeed improved. Use of the word these days is not the result of ignorance. People who use the word are aware of the connotations. Again, referring back to the Media Nation piece, Kennedy proved it when he quoted an earlier statement from Goldberg, in which Goldberg acknowledged that little people would be upset if he were to use the word midget. Cuban, who made the comment about Starbucks over twitter, in a subsequent post, immediately acknowledged that his comment would upset people. (Geraldo Rivera also once used the word to describe Olbermann. He didn't use the same joke as Goldberg, but once, really upset with Olbermann and unable to come up with anything eloquent to say, Rivera said, "He is a midget.")

What once was common knowledge only within the dwarfism community- that midget is a derogatory, damaging word - is now becoming common knowledge outside of the community. That common knowledge has helped weed out innocent use of the word. People can no longer so easily use the excuse that they didn't know any better.

But the word is still and will still be used. It's an inside joke within the dwarfism community that a comedian, when he or she is losing a crowd, will fall back on a midget joke. Similarly, columnists, commentators and prognosticators of media, when they are unable to find the words to say what they really mean, will also fall back on the word midget. I don't like use of the word, but I think it is a good thing that at least they know the power behind the word.