Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Joe Roach remembered

Several years ago, a married man and woman, both persons of short stature, were featured on Oprah's show. They lived in Houston, Texas, drove a Hummer and had three adopted children. The evening after the Oprah episode, I was driving home after work on the Kennedy Expressway in my pre-1990 Mercury. Traffic was crawling along within Hubbard's Cave, so slowly it was easy to see clearly the people in the cars surrounding me. Someone in a neighboring car motioned to me to roll down my window. With my window down, the woman in the passenger seat of the car to my left asked, "Were you on Oprah last night?" I shook my head, wondering, 'does my Sable look like a Hummer?'

Such is the life of a person of a person of short stature, easily mistook for other dwarfs. It could have been worse. In this particular case, the woman mistook me for Joe Roach, a father, husband, attorney, former Houston council member. And, to me, a good role model. Sadly, Joe died earlier this week.

The Hubbard's Cave incident happened long before I met Joe for the first time, last summer at the National Little People of America Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. At the conference, he worked with a television station which produced the ABC Segment below. I don't think Joe liked me too much. I coordinate media at the conferences and I try to impose rules about what pieces of the conference are media-free zones. A few times, after telling Joe he couldn't go somewhere with the camera, he gave me a look that said, "You're kidding, right?"

With or without my media-free zones, the story turned out. But years before the conference, Joe won my admiration for how he handled a tough situation. While addressing a conference in New Orleans, the leader of Houston's Affirmative Action Program referred to Roach as a "Republican midget." Most people with dwarfism have been called midgets at some point in their lives. But I don't know how many of us have ever responded effectively, especially if the incident happened in a public arena. Referring to the midget remark, Roach said, "I want to be known as a good council member or a bad council member, not as a Republican midget." As a result of Roach's follow-up efforts, the Affirmative Action leader later apologized, served a three-day suspension, and developed a sensitivity program.

Roach's comment above underscores what disability identity means to me and perhaps others. Dwarfism, or disability, is a significant piece of our identify. But dwarfism doesn't define our actions. And all of us, no matter who we are, deserve to be judged by actions -- We want to be remembered by what we contribute or what we don't contribute to the world through our actions, not by something over which we have no control.

As a council member in Houston in 1998 Roach made it clear that he would be defined by his record, not by a slur. And because of the way he handled the situation, he has probably benefited many others besides himself.

Joe is one of several members of the dwarfism community who have died over the past year. I am sad they are gone, but I am thankful to each of them for the work they did to make the community a better place.


  1. Great blog, Gary. A great loss.

  2. well written. He will be missed by many in LPA.

    Mark Trombino

  3. Raquelle de la RochaMay 5, 2011 at 5:16 PM

    Dear Gary: Thank your for writing such a terrific blog. This post about Joe Roach brings me to remember another amazing friend we lost 5 months ago, Paul Miller (who you also wrote eloquently about in October). May 4th, yesterday, was the 50th anniversary of Paul's birth. I knew Paul for 25 years; we both summer clerked at the law firm of Leob & Leob, where is brilliance was apparent. But at the end of the summer, when final job offers were to be made, the firm only offered him a job in the Real Estate department, despite his great potential as a litigator, because he was told, "we think you will be a great lawyer, but our clients and the judges will never accept you as a litigator." Undeterred, as you know, Paul went on to shatter those biases. Through the years, I shared his excitement in his various positions (law professor, EEOC Commissioner, and advisor to two Presidents), all the while keeping that sunny disposition throughout all the hurdles placed in his way. I loved riding with him in his "tricked" out car, and when we both were teaching at UCLA Law School, I sat in on classes and watched him light up the room, inspiring students to think critically and methodically about disability law issues. These students soon saw that, it was the fact that the world was set up for typical folks that created 90% of the disability issues faced by Little People (in Paul's case, he did suffer from many of the physically disabling ailments of the Short Stature, such as joint, spine issues). The last time I saw Paul in Washington, when he was in the Obama White house, he had been weakened physically by chemotherapy, but not in any other way. That day he had breakfast with me, and with my 11 year old autistic son, who was enthralled with Paul's brilliance and perseverance. Paul was not successful *despite* being a Little Person, rather that was just part of Paul. This example helped my son embrace his own difference from "neurotypical" folks, and as he succeeds, it won't be *inspit* of being on the spectrum. Gary, your blog postings are rich in impact, far beyond the community of Little People. Thank you. Raquelle de la Rocha, Los Angeles