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.

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