Friday, October 28, 2011

Competent to deal with a sometime intolerant culture

Yesterday, everyone on staff where I work participated in a Cultural Competency seminar. The seminar was designed to equip staff to work better with each other, with the consumers with whom we interact, and with other groups with which we work. The idea was that sometimes tensions exist between all of these parties -- Tensions that derive from diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences. The seminar was like a good class that I would sit through during my years in college, in so far that the seminar really got me thinking. But more so than anything else, the seminar got me thinking about the tensions that I confront in my day-to-day as a person with dwarfism.

Similar to my days as a college student, I took some notes during the seminar. I wrote down a bunch of things said by the facilitator. She said, “If you want to be in a world that works for everyone, you have to be willing to jump into the scummiest ponds.” That got me thinking. I wonder what that means for a person with dwarfism on the worst of days? A letter posted recently on the Washington Post blog referenced anecdotes from Bob Whittemore. Whittemore is a person with dwarfism. He wrote to the Post because he is against Florida legislation that seeks to repeal current legislation that prevents bars from hosting dwarf tossing events. He shared anecdotes with the Post. Whittemore wrote,

Have you ever, after a productive day of business, walked into a bar with your colleagues and customers to celebrate the day, and are suddenly grabbed by a total stranger who wants to pick you up and throw you as far as he can, because it would be a “hoot”?

This is one reason why Little People of America and many others are against the repeal legislation, because something as obscene as dwarf tossing affects many more than just the people directly involved. But beyond legal protections, how does one confront this type of behavior on an individual level? In order to create a world that works for everyone, do people with dwarfism need to submerge ourselves within the dirty ponds?

The facilitator also said yesterday, “The best way to deal with intolerance is to get related to people.” Does that mean we need to walk around in the shoes of the intolerant ones who treat people with physical difference as mere objects?

As distasteful as it sounds to give intolerance some room to maneuver in order to understand it, I think the facilitator is correct. If people with dwarfism, and other groups that are subjected to discrimination, are going to make change, we have to understand where and who the discrimination comes from, and why. But just because we make an effort to understand the roots and motivation behind discrimination and intolerance, it doesn’t mean we have to stop fighting against it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A case against dwarf tossing

As most everyone knows, on October 3, a Florida State Representative introduced legislation, H.B. 4063, that would undue protections against dwarf tossing in Florida. Reaction to the news from the dwarfism community was spontaneous and immediate. While scores of people took to Facebook to express their pride, joy and empowerment after news of Peter Dinklage’s Emmy Award last month, scores, if not more, launched Facebook posts full of contempt toward the idea of allowing again an activity that is an insult to the dwarf community.

Many people also shot off emails or placed phone calls directly to Representative Workman, the legislation’s sponsor. The media reported that Workman introduced this legislation as a jobs bill, saying something to the affect of “all a ban on dwarf tossing does is prevent some people with dwarfism from finding jobs.” Though this remark was attributed to Workman, he has since narrowed his messaging around the legislation to government intervention, claiming that, although he finds dwarf tossing horrendous, government has no right telling people what they can and can not do. According to Workman, if a dwarf wants to be thrown, he or she has a right to participate in dwarf tossing events.

The personal liberty argument is not easy to address. When news last year surfaced of a theme park in China that features dwarfs on display for the public’s amusement, many people within the short statured community in the United States defended the Chinese dwarfs who participate, saying they had a right to make a decision to participate. But there is a difference between dwarf tossing and the theme park. The difference is safety. It’s been well documented by the Medical Advisory Board of Little People of America that dwarf tossing could result in serious injury, and even death, for the person participating. That is a serious risk. Perhaps a risk serious enough to legislate against. But one could still make a strong argument that government shouldn’t legislate the safety of an individual. After all, boxers, wrestlers and football players risk paralysis and death when they compete.

There is a difference though between dwarf tossing and the other activities that create serious risks to the participants. With dwarf tossing, when one decides to participate, it poses a threat to the entire dwarf community, including those who want nothing to do with dwarf tossing. If an activity creates an environment that threatens those not involved with the activity, then government does have a right to, and should, legislate for the safety of the community. The problem with dwarf tossing, the reason it is a threat to the entire dwarf community, is that it creates a hostile environment for people with dwarfism, all people with dwarfism. Because dwarf tossing projects the dwarf as a mere object, no different than a shot put, a discus or a football, its sends a message that people with dwarfism are inanimate objects and it is acceptable to physically handle them as such. This Washington Post blog entry includes testimony from a dwarf who was a victim of obnoxious physical behavior as a result of messages sent by dwarf tossing. Other, more positive messages of dwarfism do exist today in popular culture and mainstream media. But because the history is so recent of dwarfs presented in popular culture exclusively as punch lines, comic relief, and objects, the reemergence of dwarf tossing, and the endorsement of dwarf tossing, poses a risk.

The timing of the repeal legislation in Florida is particularly atrocious. So much attention has been dedicated recently to anti-bullying initiatives, in the hopes of impacting communities that embrace differences. Dwarf tossing completely contradicts the anti-bullying movement. Rather than embrace differences, dwarf tossing says that it is okay, for the amusement of others, to objectify people because of their differences. A slap in the face to those who are organizing against bullying, dwarf tossing promotes a culture of hostility.

Anyone against dwarf tossing, please sign this petition. The petition urges Representative Workman to withdraw his repeal legislation.