This morning, Ethan, my friend and colleague, and I began the first phase of a project that will take us to six high schools in six different states. Ethan and I are both on the Executive Committee of Little People of America, a national membership group for people with dwarfism.
One issue important to thousands of people of short stature is language. For most people with dwarfism, the word 'midget' is a dehumanizing slur. (For more on the word, the second half of Chapter Seven in Dan Kennedy's book Little People is a good source) For years, there has been an effort to raise awareness around the meaning of the word from the perspective of people with dwarfism. That effort has generated momentum within the past several years, with reality programs featuring people of short stature raising awareness around language and with an FCC Complaint against NBC for its use of the word midget and its poor portrayal of people with dwarfism on "The Celebrity Apprentice."
Little People of America also is working to raise awareness around language. Within the past year, Ethan and I began planning a trip to high schools around the country that have the 'midget' the 'fighting midgets' or the 'mighty midgets' as a mascot. We planned to visit the schools with the intent of sharing our concerns around language, and hearing directly from people who attend the schools, who work in the schools and who live in the towns. We want to equip the schools with the perspective of a community with a very personal connection, albeit a negative connection, to the word midget. This morning at 7 a.m., Ethan and I loaded up Ethan's car and began a five-hour drive from Indiana, where Ethan and his family live, to Freeburg, Illinois, home of the Freeburg Fighting Midgets.
Long before our visit, Ethan reached out to the Freeburg Superintendent, who organized a series of focus groups with students. We arrived in Freeburg around 12:15 p.m., met Superintendent Lehman and went directly to his office. A few minutes later, the first group of students appeared. Over the next two and a half hours, Ethan and I conducted interviews with five groups of kids, ranging is size from five to seven and ranging in grade from freshman to senior. We asked a series of questions designed to get their thoughts about what they think about the mascot, what others think of the mascot, what they think of the word midget, and what they think of people of short stature. After the final interview, Ethan and I checked in at a nearby hotel, made a short trip to Steak & Shake, then returned to the school to present in front of the School Board. Before the School Board, we talked about Little People of America, language, and our initial reactions to the interviews with students.
Back at the hotel, while unwinding and watching the NCAA Tournament, Ethan said aloud "Did we just present in front of the board?" He was not alone. After months of planning, it was hard to believe we had made the first visit.
Now that our first trip is nearly over, in addition to unwinding, we'll have to sort out what we heard from the students, what we heard (or didn't hear) from the faculty and staff, what we can do with the information, and what we think Freeburg might do with the information we shared. In the days to come, we plan to report more on the themes and surprises that emerged from the conversations.