Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Steve Jobs offers a bit of perspective

Last year, I posted a blog entry about a theme park in China where dwarfs, not rides and not animals, are the main attraction. I was asked about the park by a reporter. I said many things to the reporter. I tried to be supportive of the people who chose to work at the park. But I also made a very negative comment about the fact that the park existed. The story only printed the negative comment. The quote, within the context of the rest of the news story, made it appear that I was very critical of the dwarfs who worked there. While I wish that dwarfs in China, as well as dwarfs around the world, could choose from a variety of quality jobs to make a living, I regretted the quote. The quote failed to consider the perspective of someone in a situation that could be very different from the situation in which I am living.

I was reminded of that story today on my way to work. While on the train, I read an article called "Steve Jobs: An American 'Disgrace.' The story talks about a factory in China where laborers manufacture Apple products. According to the story, the conditions at the factory included "thirty-four hour shifts, beatings, child labor, an epidemic of suicides." The story went on to say that"Faced with a public relations problem relating to suicides, the company installed wire mesh on the factory windows to stop workers from jumping..." Based upon this story, published in The Nation, working at the Dwarf Theme Park is a dream job.

Though I have learned the importance of perspective, Little People of America and dwarf advocates should not turn our backs on institutions in this country and around the world that limit opportunities for people of short stature. In other words, if popular culture treats people of short stature like an inanimate object, a joke, or something less than human, it may have an impact on how the general population relates to people of short stature, and it could impact mainstream employment, education and social opportunities for people of short stature. Our job is to broaden the general population's perspective of people of short stature. We need to deliver the message that people of short stature are full and equal participants in the general population. The more this happens, the more people in the general population will embrace dwarfism as a natural part of a diverse population. If we are able to get that far, then more mainstream opportunities will open up for people with dwarfism.

Again, though I have learned about perspective, I don't think that a young man in China who dances a jig for the amusement of tourists at a dwarf theme park is going to change the attitude of a legal partner in the United States who needs to hire a new associate and who believes a male lawyer needs to be more than five feet tall. If anything, the theme park would reinforce the partner's misguided assumption of what a lawyer should be.

But we have no idea what circumstances led the person in the China to the job. And we have no idea what circumstances that person would be in if he didn't take the job. All we can do is try to keep in mind that each of goes through life with a different set of choices and a different set of opportunities, and to do our best to do what we think will open up those choices and opportunities.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

My story in the Chicago Reader

Every once in a while, if I write about a subject that the wider public may be familiar with, I link the blog post to my Facebook page. It makes sense that the few posts which have appeared on my Facebook page attracted more readers than typical entries of mine. I last linked this blog to my Facebook page in September, after I wrote about Peter Dinklage and his Emmy Award. Soon after I posted the essay, a few Facebook friends of mine commented via social media, congratulating me and complementing the post. The comments boosted my confidence. With an inflated ego, I deduced, if my social media friends found something of value in the essay, perhaps all of Chicago will find something of value in the essay. With a new purpose in mind, I added a few new elements to the piece, flushed out a few existing sections, and submitted it to The Chicago Reader, a weekly news and arts & culture newspaper geared toward a progressive audience.

I've submitted to the Reader four times. Only once have they run something I wrote. I wasn't surprised when a week passed and I hadn't heard anything about my submission from the paper. Another week passed and I received an email from the Reader. The email acknowledged that they had received my correspondence, but made no mention at all of the story I had submitted. Instead, the editor asked if I would like to be interviewed for a weekly feature of the paper. Each week, the feature highlights a random person in Chicago, and tells a story from that person's perspective. The feature is framed as "first person accounts from off the beaten track." I agreed to participate. When I asked how to prepare for the interview, the writer told me something like, "you don't need to prepare. We are just going to have a conversation."

When I later interviewed with the reporter, I told her a story about riding my bike around Chicago, and strangers taking my picture while I am on the bike - something I've written about, perhaps too often, here. Though I was instructed not to prepare for the interview, I knew I would tell the biking story. The story ran a few weeks ago.

I am not sure why, probably because the piece exposes some vulnerability, and some fear, I was hesitant to share the story. Soon enough though, the piece was shared widely, including social media pages of my friends and on the Little People of America Facebook page.

The majority of the direct feedback has been very positive. Friends have been very supportive. I received a great email from a colleague of mine. The email included the subject line, "give me your camera bitch." I shared that email with the writer of the piece, saying, "no matter the other responses, feedback like this makes the whole experience worth it." In general, people I know are very nice. They tend to keep negative feedback to themselves. Just the other day, someone asked, "What did you think of the story in the Reader?" I said, "generally, I feel good about it, and generally, the response has been very good." To this, the person asking the question had no verbal response. He just looked at me. Though he didn't say anything, his face appeared to strain, as if he were putting all his energy into keeping negative thoughts unspoken.

I wouldn't trade in the positive feedback from friends and supporters, but the piece in the Reader has another value also, for me anyway. It's given some validation to the anger I sometimes feel when I am treated poorly for something that I have no control over, and when other people of short stature are treated poorly for what they have no control over, our physical difference. For years, I've tried to develop a strategy to deal with people who take unauthorized photos of people of short stature. There really is no good strategy, because there will always be a few people who act that way. Whether I confront or ignore them, it won't change what they have done. But sharing the story in the Reader has helped to legitimize the frustration I feel.

When I first started to work at Access Living, I learned about the Independent Living perspective. The perspective reframes problems of physical and social accessibility. The perspective says, people with disabilities should not have to change who we are in order to function and thrive in the world. Instead, we need to change the world in order to make it more inclusive of all people, with and without disabilities. In a way, the Reader piece has helped me reframe the biking experience. In all likelihood, I will have my picture taken again, and in all likelihood, that is going to piss me off, but it's going to be easier to shrug off that anger now. Easier because I know that in my work at Access Living, and with Little People of America, I am doing my best to open the door to a world that is inclusive of, and embraces, diversity. But if the people who are in the car snapping those photos want to be a part of that world, it is up to them to put down that camera and shed some bigotry in order to fit through the door frame.