I am an educator. I am the middle child. I am a Scorpio. The three qualities presented help to explain my thought process in conversations, like the one seen here. As an English Instructor in higher education, I know my students will appreciate informed opinions that offer opposing viewpoints. Growing up with an older sister and younger brother, I noticed I had a bit of a rebellious streak – I was nothing like the other two. And Scorpios by nature are said to be very intuitive, mysterious, and quite often these individuals possess a passionate, “dog-on-a-bone” like mentality. Kind of like the Tom Petty song, “I Won’t Back Down.” This gives reason as to why I chose not to give up, sugar coat, or ignore my opinions on the subject of “dwarfism” and how it’s viewed, as well as poorly discussed in the media. There is definitely a missing element in the discussion pertaining to “tolerance” and “acceptance.” And I hope this piece offers a unique perspective on how the conversation can be addressed.
“The Truth, Not an Exaggeration”
Our culture has difficulty defining what is “normal” because it does not exist; rather, normalcy is defined by what the Status Quo deems either comfortable or familiar. Our ability to recognize, accept, and tolerate will help create an understanding of who we are as individuals.
I am writing to start a new conversation because there is something missing in the current dialogue regarding acceptance and tolerance. It is easy to recognize how we live in an imperfect world, but it is truly impossible to understand why we don’t value imperfection. Human discourse naturally wants to avoid conflict as well as dismiss conversation that makes audiences feel vulnerable. I think that’s foolish. Great conversation has the power to inform, to interpret, and to advocate even if it makes us feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. I would like to take this opportunity to inform my audience, as well as advocate for individuals with dwarfism.
New York State is one of several states to declare October as National Dwarfism Awareness Month, and we have New York Assemblywoman Nancy Calhoun to thank. Yet, the entire country should be involved in this conversation. However, topics concerning dwarfism make some audiences feel quite uncomfortable.
Rosie O’Donnell openly admitted on her show in February 2012 that she has “a mild fear or anxiety around little people.” Ms. O’Donnell shared her feelings with a fellow comedian—Chelsea Handler. O’Donnell went on to say in an attempt to further justify her level of “anxiety”: “What the problem is for me is that I can’t put the two things together. This is an adult person, but it’s a little person.” Audiences were not sympathetic toward O’Donnell’s phobia. Both O’Donnell’s diction and comedic ability to manipulate satire distracted her audience from what was said. Ms. O’Donnell is not alone when admitting she fears “little people.”
I live in fear knowing how dangerous words can skew perception. It doesn’t matter what is said, but who, exactly, is saying it. I was extremely uncomfortable when I heard a celebrity, someone like Rosie O’Donnell who has the potential to wield a lot of power, employ language in a discussion that grossly illustrated both human cruelty and pure stupidity.
I have the most common type of Skeletal Dysplasia: Achondroplasia. The word “dysplasia” literally means ‘abnormal growth.’ Skeletal Dysplasia is a medical term that characterizes certain types of dwarfism—primarily ones that are affected by abnormal skeletal growth as a result of various genetic mutations. To add greater social and cultural context to the conversation, the phrase “Little Person” might strike a familiar chord. Yet, I strongly dislike the label.
My job description expects me to teach the power of rhetoric, the danger fallacies hold, as well as the importance of connotation. The word “little” carries negative weight. It is not a desirable adjective used to describe either physical stature or mental ability. The word has the potential to emasculate when it is used to describe the average adult male. The word can imply what is considered weak, miniature, cute, or child-like. Fisher-Price makes ‘Little People’—the popular toys children play with. I personally do not like inheriting a label that references such unattractive qualities. The label makes me feel like I have to fight in order to avoid feeling less than. I don’t want to wear such heavy armor every day. There are times when I feel embarrassed. I feel embarrassed for who I am. And, of course, the embarrassment ultimately stems from feeling like an outcast. O’Donnell claims “part of her problem”—she simply “can’t put the two things together”; that is, a phrase (e.g. ‘Little Person’) that labels an adult, but also draws reference to a small child. This explains why society has a tendency to point, stare, and snicker. Yes, I am short statured. No, I am not a Little Person. Being called “little” makes me feel excluded.
Both acceptance and tolerance were absent from the conversation that originally aired on The Rosie Show. Ms. O’Donnell’s “mild fear” is commonly shared. I’ve met several adults who have expressed the same level of “anxiety.” Part of their unease is created by a label. And it’s the label that makes me feel like an outcast. I support George Orwell’s thesis: “The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Both the art of persuasion and the pure manipulation of language clearly define rhetoric. Of course, celebrities can manipulate just as must power as an informative news program. Unfortunately, 20/20’s play on words carried a connotation that mocked more than it informed. “Extreme Parenting: Meet the ‘Real Life Seven Dwarfs’” was a title used to illustrate a segment that originally aired in May 2012. Barbara Walters introduced 20/20’s audience to the “Johnston family.”
The title alone was rude. I don’t understand—parents who choose to raise 5 children are considered “extreme”? However, like me, each member of the Johnston family has the most common type of Skeletal Dysplasia: Achondroplasia. That information is neither recognized nor understood by the general public. I am aware of that. However, I would hope the general public would first recognize and then understand there is nothing “extreme” regarding a family of short stature.
It is “extraordinary”—not extreme—that both Mr. and Mrs. Johnston are raising a beautiful family. Simply, the show bothered me. Its presentation was appalling. I did not appreciate how the Johnston’s “extreme” parenting was compared to a family raising their children in a nudist colony. The purpose of the hour long news program was designed to inform audiences on types of “extreme” parenting. The news likes to sensationalize—but come on. Apples and Oranges.
I am a minority. Quite frankly, I am what I call a “rare minority.” I choose the word “rare” to define population. There are roughly 30,000 individuals with dwarfism living in the United States. Generally, it is rare to meet, or get to know, or see in a community a person of short stature—let alone live next door to a family of seven. My rare minority status is something I consider extraordinary.
Bottom line: 20/20 made more of a spectacle than its weak attempt to illustrate a positive message. Perhaps, that was the point. If so, that’s sad. I want to hold the media’s selected diction responsible. The media’s ethos, either joining the conversation or teaching a lesson in dwarfism, needs to change. Both the exaggerated puns and hyperboles are harmful and insulting. For example, if TLC knocked on my door and offered to produce a reality show with me as the “star,” I would say absolutely. Heck, television pays top dollar. The Emcee in Fosse’s Cabaret was right: “Money Makes the World Go Round.” No doubt, my school loan would be paid off in no time. There is one condition; however, the executive producers cannot call the hypothetical show The Little Professor.
Society has used a label to identify only my appearance, not who I am. And as a result, I find I have an additional responsibility to command full integrity. My opportunity to command integrity, acceptance, and tolerance presents itself in a single month. Just one month with only a handful of states paying attention. Ironically, that seems ridiculous. It seems “ridiculous” because why should a month either determine or “regulate” my integrity? Morgan Freeman, perhaps, would agree. Freeman expressed his own opinions regarding Black History Month—it’s “ridiculous.”
Freeman’s conversation was part of an interview that originally aired on CBS 60 Minutes. The late Mike Wallace asked Morgan Freeman: “Black History Month, you find it…” and before Wallace could finish his sentence Freeman quickly stated: “Ridiculous.” Freeman went on to further question, “you’re going to regulate my history to a month?” Freeman made a valid point. Freeman continued with his response and said, “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black History is American History.” And at that precise moment Wallace chimed in and asked, “How are we going to get rid of racism?”
“Stop talking about it,” Freeman expressed with great enthusiasm. He finished the conversation by telling Wallace, “I am going to stop calling you a white man and I am going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.”
In other words, I am asking the media to stop pointing out the obvious—my short stature does not define who I am. The understanding of humanity in that interview was brilliant.
I don’t want to sound like I am solely attacking the media; rather, the short statured actors who give in to the slap-stick comedy routines and dwarf tossing games are equally at fault. It is their behavior that characterizes the pathetic and grotesque perception.
Society claims one must be tall in order to be a leader. Can a politician be a leader? Yes. President Roosevelt proved to his country, even when the media did not want to disclose the very fact, he could lead a nation from a wheelchair. However, State Representative Ritch Workman, Republican for Florida House, District-52 lead discussion in the fall of 2011 that made an attempt to repeal House Bill 4063—also known as the Florida state ban on ‘dwarf tossing.’
Workman was quoted in an article published via Sun Sentienal.com having stated, “They need to know that I’m not doing it for wit and humor,” he said, “that I’m doing it sincerely to give people a little piece of their liberty and freedom.”
Dwarf-Tossing is a crime against humanity. It’s purely offensive. It’s harassment. It’s a form of bullying. This drunken, stupid sport has nothing to do with “liberty and freedom.” What I don’t understand—the short statured individuals who want to participate in the said “sport.” I don’t understand how an individual in their right mind would find this spectacle either “okay” or “fun.” Those who want to participate make situations extremely vulnerable for other individuals like Martin Henderson—a man Peter Dinklage referenced in his acceptance speech at the 69th Annual Golden Globe ceremonies.
While enjoying a pint and smoking a cigarette outside an English pub, Henderson (a dwarf) was approached by a stranger who physically lifted him roughly three feet above the ground, and then proceeded to throw him. The stranger threw Henderson as though he were an inanimate object. After the incident, Henderson was left partially paralyzed.
I can’t imagine our country or a lawmaker allowing a ban to be lifted that would further perpetuate cruelty. The very thought makes me feel enraged. What happened to Martin Henderson also happened to me. Luckily, however, after the incident that took place at a bar near my university, I wasn’t left partially paralyzed. I was left only mortified. Embarrassed. Utterly humiliated. I, too, was a victim of physical assault.
Brent Staples, in his widely anthologized essay “Black Men and Public Space,” superbly writes: “Over the years, I have learned to smother the rage I felt at so often being taken for a criminal.” Staples wrote this essay in 1986 for an issue of Ms. magazine. The essay also comments on societal fears and misperceptions about race; in that, it has been uncomfortable to discuss. Staples writes, “I grew accustomed to but never comfortable with people crossing to the other side of the street rather than pass me.”
I, too, “have learned to smother the rage.” It frustrates me that I have “inherited” the stereotype of a clown, doll, and court jester. Of course, the stereotype is created by the actor of short stature, and it is then further perpetuated by the media. 20/20 and other talk shows and reality television programs should learn to look beyond the label.
There lies a better story in the truth than the exaggeration. And here’s the truth: The knowledge I share, as opposed to my obvious physical composition, greatly impacts my (college) students in the classroom. And I think that is worthy of a “real” news story.
The knowledge I share stems from my formal education experience. My intellect, intuition, and sincerity are qualities that clearly define who I am. If it sounds romantic, it’s meant to. The Romantic writers, like Charlotte Turner Smith and William Blake, valued the Imagination. The Imagination—the human mind—has the ability to control Reason. Every masterpiece is flawed. And in a Romantic world, humanity accepts imperfection because it recognizes we live in an imperfect world. Dwarfism is considered a disability. A disability is looked at within our social and cultural context as a flaw—an undesirable or unattractive trait. Further, our society will often feel very “uncomfortable” when presented with anything that is considered either “undesirable” or “unattractive.” Perhaps, the absence of Reason is America’s disability.
I mentioned there is something missing in the dialogue concerning both acceptance and tolerance. The inclusion of imperfection represents what’s missing. It’s clear; we need to be considerate in order to be tolerant, let alone accepting. Society will never be tolerant as we wish to see it because we might never find value in acceptance. It’s not tangible enough. We live in a world based on materialistic motifs. We live in a world centered on privilege and class. We live in a world where the widening gap between the “Haves” and “Have Nots” remains ever so wide. Again, that’s sad. We should be more considerate of imperfection, and we should place higher value on intelligence as opposed to aesthetic quality. After all, imperfection is Normal because it is real. John Keats wrote, “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
And a fortune cookie revealed its wisdom to me the other day at lunch: “You are the center of every group’s attention.” I believe that to be true. I am the center of every group’s attention not for my beauty, however. I was once told beauty must have symmetry. My disproportionate and disfigured skeletal frame does not have symmetry. Yet, my striking physical stature commands a strong presence that values Imagination, as well as a society where tolerance should be recognized and where acceptance should be appreciated.
Katherine P. Clark
“Extreme Parenting.” ABC 20/20. Host Barbara Walters. ABC, WHAM, Rochester, 4 May 2012. Television.
Freeman, Morgan. Interview by Mike Wallace. CBS 60 Minutes. CBS. WROC, Rochester, 14 Jun. 2006. Television.
Handler, Chelsea. Interview by Rosie O’Donnell. The Rosie Show. OWN. HARPO, Chicago, 15 Feb. 2012. Television.
Sanders, Katie. “Florida Lawmaker’s ‘Zeal to Repeal’ Easier Said Than Done.” Sun-Sentinel.com. Sun Sentinel, 22 Oct. 2011. Web. 3 Jan. 2012.
Staples, Brent. “Black Men and Public Space.” The Seagull Reader: Essays. 2nd ed. Ed. Joseph Kelly. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. Print.