Sunday, May 29, 2011


By now, many people in the dwarfism community have read or heard about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed against Starbucks. The complaint, filed on behalf of a woman with dwarfism, accuses Starbucks of discrimination based upon disability. According to the complaint, a woman with dwarfism was fired by Starbucks on the same day she requested a simple accommodation, a stool, in order to perform the duties of her job. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers provide a reasonable accommodation so long as the accommodation does not create an undue hardship. Often times an undue hardship translates to dollars. For example, it would be an undue hardship for a company to invest half of its operating budget into an accommodation. The company would probably go bankrupt. Whether its a multi-billion dollar corporation or an independent coffee shop, a stool doesn't cost much money. Starbucks justifies the firing by claiming that a stool would have created an unsafe environment for the dwarf who was fired and for other employees. Many posters on comment boards agree with the Starbucks justification, writing that behind the counter of a coffee bar, where people are racing back and forth with hot drinks, is no place for a dwarf.

Reports on the complaint and some of the public comments remind me of a U.S. Supreme Court Case from 2002, Eschazabal vs. Chevron. In that case, a maintenance worker who had Hepatitis was fired. Chevron explained that working around chemicals posed a risk to someone with Hepatitis. Chevron based its defense upon an EEOC regulation that "allows businesses to refuse to hire a worker if that worker would 'pose a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals' or of the individual." The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of Chevron.

Before the Chevron case reached the Supreme Court, an Appeals Court found in favor of Echazabal, ruling that Chevron's action reflected paternalism. The Starbucks case seems to pulse paternalism also. Scalding hot drinks pose a threat to everyone, whether you a dwarf or are typical height. Who is Starbucks to decide a dwarf can't work in that environment because of safety. Granted the dwarf may be the only one in need of a stool to perform duties of the job, but a stool really pose more of a risk than the other equipment in a standard Starbucks Coffee Shop.

When searching around the internet, I found an interesting post about the case on a site called "The Stir."
In a story named, "Starbucks Refuses to Let Dwarf Employee Use a Step Stool," the writer wrote, "If she can't work at Starbucks, that also eliminates 90 percent of the jobs in the service industry, which leaves her where? Unemployed?" That is a scary thought. If Starbucks and the employee aren't able to reach a resolution, and if the courts don't find in favor of the person who brought the complaint, what does this means for every other person of short stature in the service industry who may request a stool or another physical accommodation.

I am disappointed not just because the Starbucks employee was fired, but also because, in the two year span between the time the employee was fired and that the EEOC filed the complaint, the parties were not able to resolve the dispute. Who knows what happened in the intervening time. I know no more about the case than what has been reported in the media. There must be circumstances about which the public is not aware.

Despite this case, I've heard that Starbucks is a decent company on diversity and disability issues. My hope is that this EEOC will provide Starbucks an opportunity to build on its diversity and disability efforts, specifically within the dwarfism community. It would be great if this case ended, not with one side winning and the other losing, but with a collaboration between Starbucks and dwarfism community around corporation initiatives that will raise awareness about dwarfism, expand workplace accommodations for all people with disabilities, and increase employment opportunities for people with dwarfism in the workforce.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

New strategies?

Following up on the last blog entry, Change of Seasons, the problem that "has been lingering for a long time" is figuring out how to respond to uninvited and offensive behavior from strangers when in public. What I might have "figured out" is that reversing the problem (rather than because there is something wrong with me, the stranger is offensive because he or she is trying to fill a power void) makes the situation a lot more bearable.

That said, there is value in confrontation. A few weeks ago, after picking up a coffee or something, I was walking from the 7-11 back to my office. As I crossed a small intersection, someone waiting for the light shouted from his car, "Hey, big guy!" I kept walking. When I reached the opposite curb, he shouted again. "Hey, you!" I didn't stop. A few seconds later, he called out once more, "Hey, little man." By that time, I was about twenty feet away from the intersection, feeling pretty good because the man's shouts sounded as if they were filled with desperation. If my theory above was correct, the desperation came because my failure to acknowledge him meant that he was unable to fill his power void. He called out a final time, just as his light was turning green and I would have been a good distance up the block. "Hey, MOTH Story Slam," he cried.

I kept moving, but my pace slowed. Once the man called out MOTH, I recognized the voice. It was the EmCee of an open mic I had participated in back in February. The fourth Tuesday of every month, a club in Chicago called Martyr's hosts an event called Chicago MOTH. The night of the event, anyone who wants to tell a five-minute story puts his or her name in a hat. Ten names are picked each month and each person tells a story, which is scored by three sets of judges. The person with the highest score competes in a story competition at the end of the year. My name was picked back in February. My story, about my experiences meeting women on DATEALITTLE, didn't win, but I felt very good about it.

Now, I am sure the EmCee who saw me outside the 7-11 wasn't calling out to me because he loved my story, thought it a shame I didn't win, and was ready to offer me a publishing contract. But maybe he would have said, "I liked your story," or "I hope you come back to MOTH someday." Maybe he just wanted to say hello.

But even after I recognized the voice, I didn't turn around and go back. For one thing, the light had turned and his car was moving across the intersection. It was too late. But also, I didn't want to betray my system of dealing with people who shout out to me in public. Because after all, when I put my name in the hat at MOTH back in February, I gave them a phone number. He could always just call if he needs to reach me.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Change of Seasons

Several years ago, when I lived in a Chicago neighborhood called Logan Square, biking was nearly a year-round activity. Weekday mornings, I'd meet two co-workers at an intersection not far from where I lived and we'd bike in to work. Fifteen degrees was our threshold. If the temperature dropped below 15, we'd abandon the bikes that day. Even a Chicago winter stays above 15 most of the time. As a result, only rarely the three of us weren't on our bikes.

When I moved downtown in 2009, the biking tailed off considerably, for several reasons. I lost my biking comrades, the heavy traffic downtown discouraged biking and the shortened commute to work didn't provide the same work out incentive.

Nowadays, I rarely bike in the wintertime. My threshold has risen from 15 degrees to close to 40 degrees, if not higher. Considering that the 2011 Chicago winter lingered late into the year and that the spring has been much rainier than typical, my bikes have spent most of 2011 up on the racks. Only within the past few weeks did I ride one for the first time in several months.

For me, there is always a period of adjustment after breaking the bike out of hibernation. It takes a little while to get used to peddling around downtown Chicago without being terrified that a bus or taxi will run you over. Also, as a person who is physically not typical, I feel more vulnerable while on a bike. With that, the beginning of bike season brings a psychological hump over which I have to climb.

Just a few weeks ago, Chicago had one of its first very nice days of the spring. The sun was out and the temperature was mild. It was a Saturday, days I usually play basketball with a group of friends. I biked over to the gym where we play. On the bike ride home, I waited for a light then took a left turn at a large intersection close to my apartment. When I was about halfway through the intersection, someone in a car pointed in the opposite direction howled out his window. It is hard to describe the sound he made, kind of a cross between a coyote's cry and the signature laugh of Nelson from the Simpson's. The man directed the howl at me. As I made my way through the intersection and peddled away from the car down the street on the opposite side of the parkway, his howl became louder. He wanted to make sure I heard him. With the louder howl came a realization on my part that made the psychological biking hump of early spring much easier to navigate. He wasn't laughing because he thought I looked funny on a bike. He howled to try to make me feel bad.

Maybe I've thought about it before when trying to come to terms with the experience of harassment while riding a bike, but the realization a few weeks ago made a big difference. What I, and probably other people of short stature, experience from time to time when we are in public, has less to do with who we are and more to do with the desire of harassers to attack a supposed vulnerability in others. Obviously, the howling man had an affect on me because I am thinking about it several weeks later. But I don't feel negative about it. Instead, it is almost as if the experience provided a clue with which I can figure out a problem that's been lingering a long time.