Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Though the essay below is posted on a blog, the events are not true. The story below is fictitious. The story is based on events in my life. 

gary arnold 


It is official. I make people uncomfortable.  I wish it was because of my political beliefs or my righteous work.  But it’s not.

The first clue to that discomfort came during a visit to the Dentist. A woman on a couch opposite the front desk was the only other patient in the room. As I sat down on the other end of the couch, the woman looked up from her magazine.  The moment she saw me, she jumped up, buried her head into her forearm, planted herself against the wall, then repeated aloud several times, “Oh, Sweet Jesus, Oh Sweet Jesus,” before racing out of the office.

I turned to the receptionist.  “What’s up with her?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“Is she okay?”

“I think so.”

“Did I scare her?”

“No,” the receptionist said. “I think she was praying.”

“But she ran away screaming.”

The receptionist gazed at me, shuffled through some papers, then peeked inside a folder on his desk. “She’s Presbyterian,” he said, looking up at me.

I didn’t think much of it until the day I renewed my Driver’s License at the State of Illinois Building. Leaving the Department of Motor Vehicles, with the new ID in my pocket, I got into an elevator with a middle aged woman and a young boy.  Just as I stepped into the car the woman screamed and scurried into the corner. She tilted her head down and mumbled incoherently. 

“Is that your mother?” I asked the young boy.

He nodded.

“Is she okay?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Are you Presbyterian?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“What’s wrong?”

“She’s afraid of the midgets.”

I furrowed my brow, then took a small step and leaned toward the woman. She whimpered and squeezed herself deeper into the corner.

On the ground floor, the doors opened and the woman raced passed me and through the lobby of the building.  

The young boy and I stood alone in the elevator staring at each other.

“By the way,” I said. “It’s little people.”

The boy shrugged and ran out of the elevator, following his mother.

On a Saturday morning, not long after the visit to the State of Illinois Building, I went out of my way to find a coffee shop. According to the newspaper, this coffee shop had the best chocolate glazed donut in the city. It was a tiny place underneath the tracks of the Brown Line. It was run by a husband and wife team.

I stood waiting, last in line behind three people.  When my turn came, the man who worked the register and the woman who had been bagging donuts and pouring coffee left the counter and hid behind a cart stacked high with trays full of pastries. Behind the cart, they peered at me between two trays of donuts. 

“Could I have a chocolate donut, please?” I called out.

“No,” the woman announced. “You must go away.”

“Why?” I asked. “I want a chocolate donut.”

“Go away,” the man said. “You can’t be here.”

I didn’t leave. I figured they’d have to come out from behind the cart if another customer came inside. Soon enough, a young man showed up. Two women followed immediately behind him.  The four of us stood at the counter, watching the husband and wife, who still stood sheepishly behind the cart.

“What’s going on?” one of the women asked.  She had red hair that was tucked up under a newspaper boy hat. “Why are they hiding?”

“I don’t think they like me,” I said.


“I think they are afraid of me.”

“Don’t talk to him,” the husband yelled. He poked his head out from behind the cart and pointed to me. “Make him go away. If you all want donuts, make him go away.”

The four of us remained at the register. Thirty seconds passed. No one moved. It was great. I imagined that within a few minutes, more people would come into the shop and everyone would stand in solidarity with me, forcing this misguided husband and wife, who for some reason didn’t like little people, to sell me a donut. Maybe I’d get a free donut.

But no one else came into the shop, and before too long the young man stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans, looked toward me and started shifting his weight from one leg to the other.

“Listen,” he said, stammering a little bit. “I don’t know what’s going on. It seems like a real crock of shit. But I came all the way from Oak Park just to get one of these donuts.  Would you mind leaving?”

“Yeah,” the second woman said. “I think that’s best.”

“You want me to leave?” I asked.

The second woman nodded her hear.  “It’s not a big deal. Wait outside. I’ll buy you a donut.”

“I’ll buy you two donuts,” the young man said.

“I’m not going to leave.”

“But,” the man asked.  “if you stay, what good is that going to do? You are just going to piss off a lot of people who want donuts.”

“This isn’t about donuts.”

“It is for me,” the woman with the hat said. 

“Me too,” the second woman said.

The two women looked at the man from Oak Park, waiting for him to chime in. He shuffled a bit more, then nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry.  It’s about the donuts.”

“This is discrimination.”

“I know it stinks,” the woman with the hat went on. “But they can’t help it.” She pointed at the husband and wife, who were slowly rolling the cart toward the back of the kitchen, moving away from the register.  “They are afraid of little people.  You must know this by now.  Some people think you are a little creepy. It’s not your fault. Don’t take it personally.”

“Right,” the second woman said.  “My brother had to cancel his cable subscription.  He started to have bad dreams.  Too many midgets on reality tv.”

“It’s little people, not midgets,” I said.

“Whatever,” the second woman said.  “But hey. I’m sure you are a great guy.  God just made you a dwarf. You should make the best of it, just don’t make life harder on others.” 

“What kind of donut do you like?” the woman with the hat asked.  “Tell us what you want, then wait outside. We will get you as many as you like.”

“Screw you and your donuts.”  I gave them all the finger and left the coffee shop.

It’s one thing to encounter strangers with an irrational fear of little people at the Dentist or the State of Illinois Building. Who wants to go there in the first place? But now the fears lay between me and supposedly the best donut in Chicago.

I returned to the coffee shop the next two Saturdays. Both times, the couple behind the counter hid, refused to serve me, and rallied the other customers against me. I was humiliated.  Worse, I was relegated to Dunkin Donuts.

I sent a letter to the editor to the neighborhood paper, the Inside Booster. They refused to print it.  Though I insisted otherwise, the editor thought my letter was a joke. 

I filed a complaint against the Coffee Shop with the Better Business Bureau. But for an automatic reply telling me my complaint had been received and would be reviewed, I didn’t hear back. 

Over the next few months, I managed to shop at Jewel eight times, buy coffee from Starbucks three times, get a bean burrito from Taco Bell, and take my dog to the Veterinarian without freaking anybody out.

In my mind, I had nearly made peace with the coffee shop husband and when an 8.5 by 11 envelop from the Better Business Bureau came in the mail.

Expecting an apology and a gift certificate for a lifetime of free pastry, I found instead a letter claiming there was no cause for action against the coffee shop.  According to the letter, they did not willingly refuse service. Based upon expert medical opinion, the husband and wife had no control over what a doctor claimed to be an innate fear of little people. As evidence, paper clipped to the cover letter was a photocopy of a bill documenting a hospital visit, along with a prescription for Xanex. On the prescription pad, in the box labeled “Ailment,” the doctor wrote, “Dwarfaphobia.”

I stared at the prescription for a long time. I thought about George Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, wondering if Congress really intended the law to cover dwarfaphobes.  I thought about all the people who have avoided contact with me.

Eventually, I came to terms with the reality that I walk among people who suffer from dwarfaphobia.  I convince myself that it’s something to be proud of. After all, how many people have a disability and at the same time cause a disability.  Lots of people who march in the disability pride parade have shirts that say “Disabled and Proud,” but only a dwarf can wear a shirt that says “Disabling and Proud.”

Some days, I put on my shirt and take the Brown Line back to the coffee shop, where I stand outside and pass out fake coupons that say, “Buy one donut, get 10 Free,” until the husband sticks his head out from behind the door and threatens to call the police.  But I keep coming back. And I’ll keep coming back, at least until the doctors and    everyone whom they see understand that a Xanex may make them feel better, but they will never be cured until they treat the discrimination.


The essay above is fiction. The specific incidents did not happen but are based are interactions I've had with people who claim to have a fear of people with dwarfism.  I write more about it in this blog entry: Land of Liberty 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Land of Liberty

The group from the United States at the 
International Dwarfism Summit in Berlin
On October 14, my wife and I arrived in Berlin for the first-ever International Dwarfism Summit.  At the airport, after we picked our luggage from baggage, I took my place in line at a currency window to buy $50 worth of Euros. As I waited, a man talking on a cell phone cut in front of me.  I moved around him, then stepped in front of him, reclaiming my original place in line.  For a few moments, the man didn't notice. But eventually, the man looked down and saw me.  A smile appeared on the man's face and he began to speak to me very quickly in German. While he spoke, he continued to smile, a smile that seemed to be on the cusp of breaking into a laugh for lack of control.  I didn't understand a word he said.  But when he spoke, I stared up at him, with no smile on my face. Abruptly, the man stopped talking to me, went back to his cell phone, and walked away from the line.

Prior to my trip to Germany, I didn't study any German Language. I know only a few words. I have no idea what the man said to me.  But, my guess is that the man didn't intentionally cut in front of me. I don't think he saw me.  When he finally did notice me in front of him, he figured out what had happened and tried to explain it to me. If he didn't see me, it's no big deal.  I had a problem with the man's smile. I could have been wrong but to me the smile betrayed a condescension and superiority, the same kind of condescension that some adults use when talking to children, and that many people use when talking to people with disabilities.  That is why I neither smiled nor nodded back to the man.

I've heard people say that, in terms of accepting differences, or more specifically accepting dwarfism, some cultures are better than others.  Prior to my travels to Berlin, I wondered what it would be like as a little person in Germany.  More so, because 80 or so little people were expected to attend the conference, I wondered what it would be like to be out and about with a group of little people in a new country.  I only spent five days in Germany, but besides the man at the airport (who I assume was treating me different because of dwarfism, but I am not sure), it was really quite easy to get along as a dwarf in Berlin.  I am often oblivious to stares, (Once, after leaving a bar in Minnesota, a colleague a mine said he was pissed off about the number of people who were staring at me. I didn't notice any of the stares). but I didn't notice anything obnoxious, even when I was in public with other little people, a time in which I am typically more sensitive to the attention we generate.

Upon my return to Chicago, it didn't take long for the obnoxiousness to appear.  Soon after my wife and I dropped off our bags at home, we got right back on the train.  We rode up north to pick up our dog, who had spent the week with our friend. We got off at the Belmont Red Line Station, where we were going to meet our friend. On the street, just outside of the station, two women stepped around a pillar that ran from the sidewalk to the Elevated Train tracks above us. As soon as they saw me, they screamed. One ran into the street. The other turned away, starting back from the direction she had come.

"What's going on?" my wife asked me.
"Dwarfaphobia," I said, quietly, sarcastically.

The two women reappeared, slowly walking by where my wife and I stood.  My wife started to talk to them.  She wasn't happy.

"You don't understand," one of the women started, trying to explain their behavior.
My wife shook her head.  "It's discrimination, plain and simple," she said.

I am biased, but I agree. What I call dwarfaphobia is happening more and more often now. I think it's in response to the fact that there is more awareness about differences.  Because people are aware that it is becoming less and less acceptable to joke about people because of differences they can't control, people are finding new ways to justify their discrimination. With dwarfaphobia, people can say, "Sorry, can't help it. It's a legit fear. Here is my doctor's note to prove it." But a doctor's note only reflects the ignorance of the doctor. Dwarfaphobia is discrimination based on physical appearance and difference.

Even though this happened so soon after our return to Chicago, I don't think I can say Berlin is better than Chicago when it comes to accepting disability.  I'm no sociologist, but some cultures may be better than others in terms of embracing diversity.  But I think wherever one goes, there will be good days and bad days.  I think the important thing is to confront discrimination when it happens (thank you Katie), and promote dwarf pride.  There will be good days and bad days until I die. But the more we promote dwarf pride, the stronger the foundation will be for the future.  A foundation that embraces diversity that will support a wealth of good days for the generations that follow.