Sunday, April 28, 2013

Human side of shock radio

On September 11, 2001, I was on the train commuting to work when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers.  I didn't have a cell phone then, and most people who carried phones didn't have access to mobile internet.   I didn't learn about the attack in New York City until I arrived at work.  When I walked in the front door to the office, the woman who worked the front desk that day had the radio on.  The station was tuned to "Mancow in the Morning," a shock jock show.  This wasn't the first time I had heard the Mancow show.  As I came into the office, something seemed different about the tone of the show.  The DJ spoke with the same emphasis and inflection that I was used to, but the words seemed different than words he typically used.  It felt like there was some sort of disconnect.  As I listened to the voice on the radio, the woman at the front desk asked, "Did you hear what happened?"  That's when the words on the radio started to make sense.  Unlike a typical day of the show, the DJ wasn't on some rant.  He wasn't making fun of somebody, or some group of people.  He was reporting about the tragedy in New York. 

The day after the Boston Marathon, on April 16, I was reminded of listening to "Mancow in the Morning" back in 2001.  A radio station in Georgia had Juli Windsor as a guest.  The day before, Juli had run in the marathon and witnessed some of the chaos and tragedy.  Juli is also a member of Little People of America, and was one of two little people who ran the Marathon.  The interview with Juli was just over eight minutes long. During the first part of the interview, Juli describes her personal account of what happened when she approached the finish line and the bombs detonated.  After the three minute mark of the interview, the DJ introduces the fact that Juli is a little person.  Just before the halfway point in the interview, the DJ says, "There are words that we have used over the years to describe people who are, shall we say, challenged in terms of stature.  The improper terms we have used may have been midget...." 

I have never listened to this particular station out of Georgia.  I don't know if the DJ is what one would traditionally call a shock jock or if he is a traditional news anchor.  When he mentioned improper terms, I don't know if they were used out of ignorance or used to purposely inflict pain and generate humor.  My guess is that, in the past, the DJ has used the m-word to mach little people, and to incite a laugh. Before identifying Juli as a little person on his show, the DJ's acknowledgement of using improper terms was not an apology for past insensitivity but a recognition that on April 16, because of what happened to Juli and to others in Boston on April 15, the DJ would relate to Juli on a human level.  Who knows what will happen in the future when the subject of dwarfism comes up again on the Georgia radio station, but for one day, the DJ interacted with a person of short stature with dignity and respect. 

Even though, if my hunch is correct, that dignity and respect may not continue in the future, I am encouraged by the Georgia interview. Just like Mancow acknowledged some humanity on September 11, 2001, the Georgia radio station acknowledged humanity on April 16, 2013.  When the DJ connected with humanity, he was able to connect to a person with dwarfism on a human level.  Of course, this doesn't excuse a DJ or anyone who uses a person's physical stature and difference as a vehicle for entertainment.  The negative message sent to listeners does more damage on a daily basis than what good may have come from an objective radio interview.  But the situation indicates the DJs are aware of the inhumanity of what they do.  The task then is to force them to more often connect with the human side of their audience. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

So much more than a Marathon

A few weeks ago, thousands of runners from around the world geared up for the Boston Marathon.  Millions of family members, friends, and supporters of those runners were ready to cheer on the Marathoners.  For me, and for many other people with dwarfism, the race this year would have more significance than ever before.  Two athletes with dwarfism had qualified to run the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013.  I know of at least one other dwarf who has run a marathon, a man from Poland who had limb lengthening surgery.  But Juli Windsor and John Young were the first people with dwarfism to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  Enthusiasm for Juli and John within the dwarfism community reached an apex on Sunday, April 14 when a front page article about Juli and John was published in the Boston Globe.   I am not sure at what point something on the internet qualifies as "going viral," but within a few hours the Boston Globe article saturated the news feeds of hundreds of little people with Facebook pages.

Both Juli and John used the Boston Globe opportunity to advocate for awareness.  They both talk about the obstacles they are forced to deal with because of their physical differences. Most of those obstacles relate to the inability of strangers to deal with difference.  Both Juli and John run to deal with the obstacles and send a positive message about dwarfism.  In a section about John, the Boston Globe reporter David Abel wrote, "'The people who support and encourage me are the ones that get me to the starting line, while the ones who doubt or ridicule me are the ones that carry me to the finish line,' he said. 'Whenever I really start to hurt, I think of someone laughing, pointing, and saying, ‘You can’t do that!’ and it seems to give me the strength to carry on.'"
John Young. Photo taken from Boston Globe Article on April 14
Everyone, not just those running  the Marathon and those following the Marathon, knows what happened in Boston on April 15 in the afternoon.  I was at work when I heard about the explosions.  Like so many others, I took to the internet to verify what my office mates had said, and to try to learn more details.  Once it became clear that the horrific explosions had occurred, I went to social media.  I soon learned that in addition to Juli and John, several other members of Little People of America were in Boston, among the thousands of spectators cheering on the runners. Though many events surrounding the Marathon were tragedies that continued to unfold days after April 15, I found a small piece of what happened within the dwarfism community on April 15 to be uplifting and encouraging. Scores of people with dwarfism rallied around Facebook.  First, people posted questions, asking about the safety of John, Juli and the spectators.  Then, people shared what information they knew, posting 'Juli is safe,' and 'John is safe.' With the runners accounted for, everyone focused on the spectators, soon learning that they too were safe. 

I didn't know many of the people posting messages over social media, but it felt good to have a connection with the community during such a frightening time.  A post Juli later made underscored just how important that connection is.  Juli was just a half mile from the finish line when the first bomb exploded.  Officials immediately closed down the course.  Juli couldn't get to where her husband, mother, and mother-in-law waited at the finish line.  They were safe, but cut off from Juli.  Unable to reach her family, Juli turned around and ran back along the course.  She wrote, "When all this happened, I ran back to John Young who I knew was less than a mile behind me. John Young, I really am so thankful you were there and it provided so much comfort to be with someone I knew. We may not have crossed the finish line, but we achieved something today."  

I hurt for all the families that were impacted by the events of April 15.  I hurt for John and Juli.  They were both so close to finishing what they had worked so hard to achieve.   But I am also grateful to John and Juli.  As Juli wrote, they did achieve something.  They brought a community together on April 15, and they made me realize how lucky I am to be part of that community.