Monday, April 27, 2015

A Small Medium, at large

Yesterday, Sunday, April 26, I was in the Phoenix airport, checking the Southwest Airlines Departures Board. A woman walked up to me. She was middle-aged, probably five to ten years older than me. She started to talk to me. I don't remember exactly what she said. It was something like, "There is a midget....little person in Phoenix.  He is a psychic." Though she seemed to correct herself mid-sentence, as if she knew the word midget might be offensive, I interrupted her. 

"I don't like the word midget," I said. 

The woman stopped talking, registered what I said, and started to talk again. "There is a little person in Phoenix. He is a psychic.  He committed a crime."  At that point, I knew the woman hadn't approached to ask if I knew a little person from Phoenix.  

There are two little people jokes that get repeated more than any other I know. The first one always uses the m-word. The punchline is, "That's like getting the award for the world's tallest midget."  People use the joke as a tool to discredit the recipient of praise.  Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks Basketball Team, repeated the joke over Twitter, referring to Starbucks' Via Coffee being named the best instant coffee.  Matt Damon, during the interview on the Today Show, used the joke to disparage himself when the hosts announced that he had won an award, something like the "World's Sexiest Family Man." The actual meaning of the joke is troubling enough because it reveals an inherent bias against short stature. Throw in the m-word, the joke provokes tired exasperation. 

The second joke is the one the woman in the airport started to tell.  It involves a little person who is a psychic or an astrologer.  He or she is arrested, but manages to escape. The punchline is, ".....a small medium, at large." For some, a cute play on words. But if the joke includes the m-word, it only inspires more eye rolling. 

In the airport, I thought the woman was going to ask me about a real little person who lived in Phoenix.  I guessed she was going to ask if I knew the person. But it didn't take long for me to figure out that she had approached a stranger, who happened to be a dwarf, in the middle of an airport, in order to tell him a little person joke. Realizing she was leading up to the standard punchline, I stopped the woman a second time.

"I know this joke," I said. I used a monotone.  She paused, focused her eyes a bit more than they were already, gave a slight nod, then started in on the punchline. "A small...." she stopped, waiting for me to finish the joke.  I don't know if she stopped because she wanted me to prove I really knew the joke or to allow me to share in the joy of the punchline.  

In another monotone voice, I said "medium, at-large." She chimed in for the last bit. We said "at-large" in unison. 

With a somewhat satisfied look on her face, the woman squeezed my shoulder, said, "you are a good boy," then walked off. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Rough Night in River North

Years ago, while working the Sunday Shift by myself at Arrow Messenger Service, I sat reading an article from Cosmopolitan Magazine.  The article's message said that if you are single, you need to spend every moment you can cultivating opportunities for relationships. That meant, no Friday or Saturday nights alone in front of the television.  I often thought of the article, and often laughed about it, because, as a single man, I spent many weekends by myself.  Mostly, I spent time by myself because I had nothing else to do.  But sometimes, often times, I wanted to, and I'd choose to, spend Saturday nights alone watching a movie or television.

I've been married for five years.  Yet, I still think about the article from Cosmopolitan.  I feel like going out to be social is the right thing to do.  I think about it on Friday evenings as the work week is winding down and a group of colleagues make plans to go out for a drink.  Though I like my friends at work, and I go out once in a while, it's always easier for me to go home and unwind with three hours worth of Modern Family episodes on TBS.

But this past Friday, April 10, I wanted go out with a group from work.  Someone from the Civil Rights Department was celebrating a birthday.  The plan was to meet at this Corner Tap a few blocks from the office.  Evidently, though someone from our party called the corner tap ahead of time, they couldn't accommodate our group, (isn't accessibility lovely 25 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act?).  Plan B turned out to be Chili's.  It was not far away, it had space, and it was accessible.

By the time the group was settled in at the restaurant, it was 6:30 p.m. By 7 p.m., after one Margarita, I was ready to go.  Introversion and thoughts of Modern Family had sunk in.   For some reason, it took thirty minutes to flag down the server, ask for a bill, and pay.  Leaving, because I wanted to leave much earlier, and because it took so long to pay for one drink, I was antsy.

The Grand Avenue Station along the Redline is just two blocks south from Chili's.  The Chicago Avenue Station is four blocks north.  In hindsight, perhaps I should have gone north.  But there was no reason to think anything would happen. It's hard to imagine that anything would happen within a distance of just two blocks, even if they are Chicago blocks - which are larger than the average city block, and even if it was through the heart of River North -- where many people on a Friday night drink, then drink some more.  

Crossing Ohio Street, I was just one block from the Grand Avenue Station.  Just as I stepped onto the corner at the Southeast side of the Ohio and State Street intersection, I heard a scream. Though scores of people were all around me, I recognized the scream. It is the scream of dwarfaphobia from an individual who is traveling with a small group of friends.  The individual screams, claims he or she is frightened because of a dwarf, then his or her friends laugh.  In this case, it was a group of five teenage girls.  The screamer ducked into a doorway. She stuffed her head into the corner of the doorway, waiting for me to pass.  I stopped. I didn't want to pass.  I wanted to force the teenager to look at me.

Not much time passed.  As the crowds of people continued north and south on the sidewalk, I stayed at the corner, waiting.  Four of the teenagers stood outside the doorway, about ten yards from where I stood, waiting.  The screamer continued to press herself into the doorway.  Less than a minute later, one of the teenagers said, "I've got to pee."  She, along with two others, left her friend in the doorway. They passed by me without saying anything or acknowledging me.

Eventually, the screamer pulled herself from the doorway.  She, along with the fifth and final teenager, backtracked.  They walked down State to Grand, crossed the road, walked up the opposite side of the street, then crossed back to the near side of the street once they were beyond where I stood. I watched until they disappeared into the crowd.

Half a block down the street, a woman sitting in a nice looking restaurant at a table of four pounded on the window, trying to get my attention. I stopped. All of the people at the table were women.  They were probably mid twenties to early thirties. The one who knocked on the glass, shouted at me through the window.  "Hey," she yelled out. I couldn't read the look on her face.  I couldn't tell if it was a look of recognition, as if she and I might had met at some point, or if it was a look that said, "Hey, Look at the guy."  The look on the faces of the other three women ranged, from uncomfortable smiles, to objectifying smiles.   I waited a moment.  The woman who knocked on the glass didn't say anything, or give any kind of clue to indicate that she knew who I was.  I turned my head, and walked toward the train station.

Two thirds of the way down the steps to the platform of the southbound Redline train, I stopped.  No one else was on the steps.  At the bottom of the steps was a teenage girl, maybe a little younger than those in the group I saw earlier.  She was with a boy.  The boy, who didn't see me, walked from the base of the steps down along the platform.  The girl, when she saw me, stopped and stared.  When I saw her staring, I was about ten steps up from where she stood. I stopped.  I stared back.  "What?" she mumbled, as if wondering why I stared.  The boy she was with returned.  He looked at me. He gave me a perturbed look.  I waited, standing, watching them, until they both moved on. I walked to the opposite end of the platform.

The platform was crowded. The train was still eight minutes away, a long wait for a Friday evening. A few minutes into the wait, I looked up to the girl.  Standing about 15 yards away, amidst several strangers, she took my picture with her phone.

Over and over again, people say, "you have to pick your battles." As I get older, I pick fewer and fewer of them. I think, and hope, it's more productive to engage in broader outreach activities rather than confronting individuals who may know no better. Also, harassment, whether it be misinterpreted or genuine, doesn't bother me as much anymore. It's easier to write off someone as biased or prejudiced than to be weighted down by the behavior of others.

But two days ago, I was bothered by what happened. Stares are one things. Pictures are another.  But the dwarfophobic moments are hard to take.  Nevertheless, confrontation on a Friday night in River North is never a good idea.  

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Message Evolution

Tiffanie DiDonato is in the news again.  Back in 2008, she made headlines for her decision to undergo limb lengthening surgery.  News coverage of her experience frustrated me.  Headlines such as "Little Person No More," sent an inaccurate message. Whoever elects to have the surgery, and whoever undergoes the procedure, is still a dwarf at the end of the procedure.  For the most part, whoever undergoes the procedure, still has to face similar physical obstacles and social obstacles that may stand before individuals with dwarfism.

In an ABC Story from 2008, DiDonato said that as a result of her surgery, "I'm going to be free. I'm going to be independent."  I don't think limb lengthening is necessary, Yet, I realize that some obstacles may in fact disappear as a result of the surgery.  One example is driving.  I've seen social media posts about dwarfs who are able to drive without peddle extenders after limb lengthening surgery.  Driving is a source of independence.  But this doesn't mean that limb lengthening is a link to independence. Whether a dwarf uses pedal extenders or not, he or she is able to drive and exercise independence.

A few years ago, news coverage promoted an autobiography written by DiDonato.  The book was called Dwarf, How one woman fought for a body -- and a life -- she was never supposed to have.  I haven't read the book, but coverage of the book was also frustrating.  The coverage made it seem as if the book was all about the limb lengthening surgery and how that surgery made her life "normal." "Tiffanie DiDonato dreamed of living a normal life—of being able to reach the sink unassisted or even someday driving a car so she could have the independence so many of us take for granted." Also, the subtitle makes it seem as if one's body, and dwarfism, define a person's life. 

I do give DiDonato credit for writing the book.  In order to attract an audience, a writer has to be honest. No one would ever want to read my journals because I am rarely honest, even with myself.  Sometimes I am not honest because I am terrified that someday someone may read me journal.  But DiDonato was honest.  In a news story from 2012, DiDonato said "I was honest with myself, if I wanted to die, if I felt like that's what I wanted to do, then I wrote it down."

This past week, a new story about DiDonato was published, a story about her experiences as a mother, raising a toddler.  At first, I was concerned. I thought the story would send the message that if she hadn't had limb lengthening, she could never be a good mother.  Early on in the story, the piece did reinforce a misguide message from coverage of DiDonato years earlier.  The reporter wrote, "Born with diastrophic dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism, she underwent limb lengthening surgery...allowing her to life an independent life."  Again, whether someone is four foot tall or three foot tall, independence is not about height.  Independence is about the environment, supports and accommodations.  Despite that message, much of the article focused on her strategies as a mother responsible for a three-year-old.  Rather than celebrate limb lengthening as a tool that allowed  her to care for her son, the article looked at DiDonato's challenges as a parent, challenges to which all parents, dwarf, disabled,  and non-disabled, could probably relate.  

I am not a parent. I don't know if the article was accurate in the realms of parenting and disability.  But I do know that the article did not dwell as much on the limb lengthening as the answer to obstacles that face people with dwarfism.  I hope that becomes a trend if DiDonato continues to be in the news in the future, because the secrets behind what defines a person is not found in dwarfism, and certainly not in limb lengthening.