Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Challenges of Awareness Months

Barbara Brotman published a column in the Chicago Tribune on October 6 titled, "Why some women with breast cancer dread October."  From professional football players wearing pink cleats, to billboards with pink ribbons, October is dominated by marketing around Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  With the marketing come stories about women who have battled through and survived cancer, and individuals pitching for more support of research in order to find a cure for breast cancer. In her column, Brotman wrote about women with metastatic breast cancer -- "cancer that has spread and is incurable."  For many of these individuals, the message Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a message of triumph and overcoming, doesn't resonate.  Brotman quoted a woman with metastatic cancer in her piece.  The woman said, "I'm happy, of course, for people who are doing well and have finished treatment, but I don't feel like I'm a part of that."

Though breast cancer awareness is by far the most well-known cause, other campaigns use October as a month to raise awareness.  Also, similar to women with incurable cancer, other pockets of people wince during October when the communities they are a part of trumpet awareness.  This includes Dwarfism Awareness Month. Dwarfism Awareness Month is much different than Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  When the ubiquitous pink throughout October represent the search for a cure, the green bracelets of Dwarfism Awareness Month have nothing to do with a cure.  Dwarfism Awareness is all about sending a message that people with dwarfism have lives just like every body else.  As such, people of short stature should not be treated as curiousities or the subject of study, but should be given the space and opportunity to live life like everybody else.

Little People of America launched Dwarfism Awareness Month in 2009. I served as Vice President of Public Relations for LPA at the time.  Soon after LPA kicked off Dwarfism Awareness Month for the first time, I received an email from a woman who wrote that Billy Barty, the founder of LPA, would turn over in his grave at the thought of Dwarfism Awareness Month.  Last year, I saw a Facebook post from a woman with dwarfism, who intimated that with October approaching, it was time to crawl under a rock and hide for a month.  I don't know what either of the people were thinking, but I assume they thought that people with dwarfism already receive a lot of attention, often unasked for attention, why dedicate an entire month to drawing more attention to ourselves?

This year, before the calendar hit October 10, I read more posts on Facebook from people frustrated with Dwarfism Awareness Month.  They seemed to agree in theory with the intent behind the campaign, but felt that too many people used the campaign to send the wrong message. They were concerned that messages were shared that framed people with dwarfism as cute and heroic, and that embellished the cliche, "they may be small, but they have hearts as big as anyone in the room." Though well intended these messages reinforce the gap between people with dwarfism and the rest of the community, and fail to convey that most people with dwarfism just want to live regular lives.  After all, no one with a jumbo size heart, literal or figurative, can lead a regular life.

I agree that some messages sent during Dwarfism Awareness Month might send the wrong message. But LPA, and the dwarfism community, must continue promoting the campaign.   We must continue to show the broader community that people with dwarfism are proud of who we are as people with disabilities, and people of short stature, and to raise awareness about the barriers to opportunity and equality we face so that people in the broader community can be a part of the effort to confront those barriers.

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