Thursday, February 28, 2013


Around New Year's Day of every year, my wife and I reflect on the highlights from the previous 12 months. For 2012, while she and I had many individual accomplishments, and cherished moments as a couple, two items on my list of highlights had no direct connection to me.  The first was Peter Dinklage winning a Golden Globe for his work on "Game of Thrones."  About 30 years ago, Linda Hunt, also a dwarf, won an Academy Award for her role in The Year of Living Dangerously, but Dinklage's award resonated deeper with me, probably because I am an adult now, and because awareness of dwarfism is rising to a crescendo.  Dinklage's award seemed to add even more legitimacy to the dwarfism community's efforts to demand that we be treated as equal partners, not excess baggage to be pulled out for some comedic relief.   Dinklage's award also took the community another tremendous step away from the historical bias of dwarfs being relegated in popular culture to the role of punch line. 

The second highlight was the publication of Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.  In the book, Solomon immerses himself into a number of what he calls "horizontal communities."  Dwarfism is one of these communities.  I had heard about the book before it was published.  But I hadn't been aware of the author's previous work, and as a result didn't know of all the anticipation around the publication of Far From the Tree in the literary community and the general community.  The magnitude of the book, and the impact that the book would have on the general population, struck me when a review appeared in The New Yorker.  Similar to Dinklage's award, the popularity of Far From the Tree, and the critical attention given to the book, has helped give legitimacy to the dwarfism community's efforts to be recognized as a community and to be valued for our contributions to society as a community and as individuals.  The contributions we want to be recognized for have little to do with our dwarfism and much more to do with our individual talents.  Peter Dinklage was recognized not for his dwarfism, but for his acting ability.  The people Solomon highlights in the chapter on dwarfism are memorable not for their stature, but for their character.

I've read two and half chapters from Far From the Tree.  Obviously, I didn't save the dwarfism chapter for last.  I read it second.  The book is long, seven hundred pages.  I hope to finish it before the Little People of America National Conference, at which Solomon will be a guest speaker. Even if I don't finish the book, I have several take aways from the dwarfism chapter that I won't forget.  My favorite is a quote from Linda Hunt, the Academy Award Winning Actress from The Year of Living Dangerously.  On page 126, Solomon quotes Hunt as saying, "It (dwarfism) is you.  But you aren't it, and that's an important distinction."

A line such as the one by Hunt is a line that can be interpreted many ways. Perhaps that is the beauty of the line.  For me, the line means, "Yes indeed, I am a person of short stature.  I am proud to be a person of short stature, and I cherish the dwarfism community that I've come to be a part of.  But dwarfism doesn't define me.  I do not cry because I am dwarf.  I do not laugh because I am a dwarf.  I do fail and I do not excel because of my dwarfism.  Dwarfism is just one thread of the fabric that makes up who I am today."  Some people still fail to see the tapestry of the lives of dwarfs.  But with people like Hunt, Dinklage and Solomon, full exposure is only a matter of time.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Is this what diversity looks like?

In both of my posts last month, I mentioned a lecture given by Lennard Davis, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  The lecture was titled "The End of Normal:  Disability and Diversity."  The premise of the lecture was that the idea of "normal" has evolved over the generations.  Historically, individuals were judged through a lens of what is normal, and what is abnormal.  Through cultural relativity, and through embracing differences, the lens of "normal" has evolved.  Now, rather than normal and abnormal, we view individuals through a broad panoramic lens of diversity.  Supposedly, there is no normal now.  Instead, we all fall along the diversity spectrum.  We are all different in some way and differences are celebrated.  In my opinion, Professor Davis' point was that some groups and individuals, which historically fell into the category of "abnormal," still fall outside the lens of acceptance.  The current spectrum of diversity claims to be inclusive, yet it does not include everyone.  Some of the groups that were once categorized as "abnormal" also do not have a place withing diversity.  According to Davis, disability is one of the groups that falls outside the spectrum.  Evidence of this can be found in places like the diversity and affinity groups of large firms and corporations.  They may include women, ethnic groups, and the LGBTQ community, but disability is often the last group to be included in these initiatives, if they are included at all.

The recent backlash against Chelley Martinka's efforts to get a pickle company to remove the word "midget" from its marketing, horrible as the backlash may be, provided a glimmer of evidence that disability, and in this case dwarfism, may indeed be poking its way into the diversity spectrum, (See "A Sweet Tasting Pickle").   One of the most hateful comments against Martinka, which was posted on her own blog, implied that the community's efforts to raise awareness around dwarfism and phase out language that is harmful and hurtful to members of the community is similar to efforts to eliminate stereotypical and racist representations of the African American Community.

This is what the comment said:  I am buying up and preserving jars of Cains MIDGETS so that my grandkids could see what they were…along with my coffee cup and menu from Sambo’s Restaurant…the OLD Aunt Jemimah pancake syrup container and my DVD of Walt Disney’s Song Of The South…good ol Uncle Reemis.

A direct comparison shouldn't be made between the marginalization of the dwarf community and the African American community. But historically, and today, members of both communities have been, and in some cases still are, denied the opportunity full participation in the broader community because of either a difference of physicality or a difference of skin color.  The commenter above was making a connection between physical markers that signaled the marginalization of the African-American Community and the dwarfism community.  Because African-Americans have a place at the diversity table, this comment acknowledges that dwarfism may also have a place. 

I shouldn't get too excited about what someone is very likely racist and bigoted posted on the internet.  But in a way, the comment provided a glimmer of hope. It was like when a comedian, for whom nothing is sacred and no community of people is safe, after many years of ignoring, finally starts to make fun of you the way he makes fun of everyone else.  Of course, no one wants to be made fun of.  No one wants to be subject of hate.  But in order to make change, and make our way onto the spectrum of diversity, we have to be heard.  Because of people like Chelley Martinka, the advocates within Little People of America, and many others, we are starting to be heard.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A sweet tasting pickle

Prior to the days of Facebook and other social media, a lot of little people in the United States and around the world were part of a yahoo list serve for people with dwarfism.  The list serve was a great way to connect with other little people to share resources, share experiences, and ask questions.   A guy I know named Danny would periodically post on the list serve.  In my memory, though in reality it's probably not accurate, I remember Danny posting every year on April 1 -- April Fool's Day.  He would concoct a satirical story about a pickle company abolishing the name "Midget Pickles" from its catalog of products.  I was always kind of annoyed by the April 1 postings by Danny.  For one thing, it would have been cool if the company actually did abolish name.  The fact that the name wasn't abolished was disappointing.  Also, Danny runs an operation in which he connects little people with businesses or individuals who want to hire dwarfs for entertainment gigs.  In his business, Danny promotes his talents using the m-word.  Though I don't know what is going on in his head, I've always believed that he would flaunt the m-word the word on the list serve, and later on Social Media, as a way to annoy people. With the story about "midget pickles," he wasn't trying to be funny.  He was trying to get under people's skin. 

Like all other uses of the m-word, I've always found "midget pickles" very tiresome.  In college, I remember grocery shopping with a friend of mine.  We were picking up food for a picnic.  While in the condiment aisle, we came across a jar of "midget pickles."  The pickles made me very uncomfortable.  I've never tried to do anything about the pickles, either on my own or in my role with LPA.  I figured, eventually the term would cycle out of the pickle industry.  And since the word wasn't being used in an intentionally derogatory way, I figured I could wait.

I am happy to report that a mother of a very young girl with dwarfism in Rhode Island didn't want to wait.  A while back, soon after she gave birth to her daughter, she came across a jar of "midget pickles."  She was outraged.  Talking about the experience to the media, she said she wanted to smash the jar of pickles right there, on the floor.  Instead of taking out her anger on the jar, she established communication with the pickle company -- Cains.  Eventually, after listening and considering the mother's point of view, Cains decided to change the name. (Thank you Cains!) The story was picked up by the media and reported on February 19.  In the days that followed, many other stories appeared.  Here is a link to the first story I read, which was in the Providence Journal.   

Since the story first broke, there has been a significant backlash against the mother.  Thankfully, in response to the backlash, there also has been a significant outpouring of support for the mother.  The backlash has been surprising.  I didn't expect people outside the dwarf community to care about the name of a pickle, especially if they knew that the name change was celebrated by a community of ten of thousands of people and their families who hate the m-word.  Yet, they claimed to care.  In the comment section of online media stories, some people would criticize the mother, asking her why she didn't spend her time trying to solve world peace, or climate change, or the fiscal crisis.  For me, that kind of argument has always been a cop out.  I wouldn't be surprised if the mother is trying create world peace and end hunger.  All of us fight many battles day in and day out.  Most will never be won.  Kudos to this mother for winning one, not just for her and her daughter, but for dwarfs around the world.

In reality, I think the people who are upset aren't mad because the mother focused her energy on a jar of pickles.  They aren't mad because they wish she spent her time on other issues.  I think they are upset because the playing field on which all of us participate in this world became a little bit more even for people with dwarfism.  The world can be a scary place.  Unfortunately, some people defend themselves against the insecurities of the world by grasping at what they believe makes them superior compared to others.  For people with dwarfism, the label of midget dehumanizes us.  When all the negative baggage that comes with the word is thrown onto the backs of people of short stature, it is easy for us to be treated as unequal participants in the communities in which we live.  As we continue to raise awareness about the m-word, we start to shed the baggage that comes with the word.  We have a long way to go, but the more baggage we shed, the more level the playing field will become for people of short stature.  Some people, to fight against their insecurities in the world, grasp at anything that makes them feel more powerful.  Perhaps, for some of these people, the deconstruction of the m-word, and the emergence of dwarfs as people, not "midgets," threatens their power and exposes their insecurities.

Of course, this is just my theory about why some people reacted so negatively to the actions of the mother from Rhode Island.  But below is a comment which I think supports my theory.  The woman from Rhode Island keeps a blog about her daughter and her experience as a mother. Her blog is called A is for Adelaide . Since the pickle announcement, many people have posted on her blog.  Many of the posts have been vicious.  Here is one that I think is hateful:

 I am buying up and preserving jars of Cains MIDGETS so that my grandkids could see what they were…along with my coffee cup and menu from Sambo’s Restaurant…the OLD Aunt Jemimah pancake syrup container and my DVD of Walt Disney’s Song Of The South…good ol Uncle Reemis.

It's as if this man's world has been falling apart over the years.  One by one, the country has recognized the right of self determination for marginalized groups.  This man can't stand the fact that he is expected to treat other people as his equal. 

People with dwarfism and their families will continue to have many hills to climb in the future.  Some will be difficult.  But with people like Chelley Martinka, the mother from Rhode Island, a part of the community, we will be equipped to make it up those hills.  So, many thanks to Chelley.  Thanks not just for reaching out to Cains, but for generating a dialogue around this issue, for exposing the hate and insecurities in others, and for dealing with it all in such a restrained, dignified, and impressive way.