“I fell in love with Ned immediately. From the very first moment I have been greeted with acceptance and love. I knew that this community was special…that this community really cared for one another. My name is Shae and I am a little person.”
Shae Sprong moved to Nederland one year ago to help her dad, Dan Harrower, run The Candy Man. At The Candy Man, Shae encounters a lot of misconceptions about dwarfism, and the challenges and triumphs of little people. What is Dwarfism?
- Dwarfism is defined as a condition of short stature as a result of a medical or genetic condition. (WebMD)
- There are over 200 distinct forms of dwarfism and skeletal dysplasia.
• People with dwarfism are generally not taller than 4′ 10″ at adult height. The typical height range is 2’8″ to 4’5″.
• Eighty percent of people with dwarfism have average-height parents and siblings.
• There are an estimated 30,000 people in the United States and 651,000 internationally with a type of dwarfism.
• In July 2009 the word “midget” was declared inappropriate and offensive. Preferable terms are: average-height, having dwarfism, short stature, little person, lp, and the medical terminology use of dwarf. A person’s name is always the most preferred.
(Little People’s Association, lpaonline.org)
There is no “cure” for dwarfism, although a limited number of individuals could choose to take growth hormone. For some with disproportionate skeletal dysplasia, other medical complications may require surgery.
Katie Haynes is another little person (LP) from our community who recently started college at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. “While I was working at Ace Hardware, many people would confuse Shae and I. They would walk in saying ‘You just helped me out at the Candy Man! How did you get over here so fast?’ Many people think Shae and I are the same person because we’re both female, LPs, with brown hair. Those comments got rather old very quickly. Many Average Height (AH) people ask if I know so-and-so dwarf, thinking that the entire community around the world knows one another. This, however is very not true. The ignorance with this lies in the idea that two dwarves are the same because they look roughly similar or every LP knows every other LP in the world.”
It is this same misconception that had lead to hurtful generalizations and bigotry, on account of one now infamous member of the LP community, David Ansberry. As soon as Mr. Ansberry was identified as the individual who built, planted and attempted to detonate a bomb at the Caribou Shopping Center on October 11, the headlines were reading “hippy dwarf arrested” and “short stature leads to arrest” and social media was all a-twitter about the “midget bomber”.
“When I found out that the intended bomber was a little person my heart sank.” Shae shared with the Facebook group “Nedheads”. “I knew the media would grab on to the fact that he was a little person and run with it. I readied myself for short joke after short joke that was sure to come. ‘Well, they’re not talking about you’ you might say. It’s more than that. It’s the simple fact that being a little person is something that this society still sees as funny, as something to make fun of. I feel like my community of little people have tried hard to be seen as just who we are, but when events like this happen I always see how far we still have to go.”
Both Shae and Katie agree that the community of Nederland is exceptional in its acceptance and thoughtfulness on this issue. However, there is still a dark side to public perception, especially when it comes to the headlines.
Katie explained, “One social challenge that come with Dwarfism is the continual use of the word ‘midget’ (hereby will be known as the ‘M’ word since it makes me uncomfortable). Most of modern day society thinks the M word is socially acceptable and the word Dwarf isn’t; but the reality of it is the opposite. Dwarf is socially acceptable because we have forms of dwarfism, while the M word is not due to the history behind the word. It’s very important to get the word out about that so we change the concept of the M word from positive to negative. The history behind the M word is this: it was used to describe dwarves when they performed in the circus as outcasts. But now that’s considered offensive because Little People are not outcasts, we’re people with experiences and feelings so we deserve to be validated and loved like any other person.”
Shae also weighed in on the cultural tendency to stigmatize a whole group based on the actions of one member of that group: “I challenge you to ask yourself, would you be making jokes if this were a veteran? black man? muslim? amputee? likely not… so why would you do so about a little person?”
Shae and Katie want to help others understand what it’s like to be a little person, and encourage “respectful curiosity”.
“The amazing thing about working in a candy store is that I have a platform to reach kids who are curious about why I am small. Often in public parents will turn their children away from me or scold them for making comments. Even though the parent has good intentions, it makes me feel more awkward and different. I think it’s important to teach kids that it is ok to be curious and to teach them HOW to be curious respectfully.”
But constantly navigating awkward social moments and standing up for oneself can be exhausting, too. “Sometimes we need a stranger or friend to tell someone it’s not okay to take pictures. Sometimes, we need someone to speak up when an inappropriate comment is made, whether we hear it or not. It’s just as harmful to sit back and allow ablism and bigotry to happen.”
Living with dwarfism comes with triumphs as well as challenges. Katie speaks frankly about her experiences as a little person: “My biggest social triumph is being known as an open and accepting person. I love answering questions about dwarfism and bringing awareness about Little People and our lives in a world made for average height people. I make it very known that I love answering questions and making connections with other Little People and interested Average Height people. It’s important for me that I have a reputation as an open person that will never judge people by the questions they ask, only the statements they make. The difference being questions open the door to accepting what someone tells you while statements are definite and the person has already made up their mind about that comment and the people who would be affected by it.”
In the midst of so much confusion, anger, and frustration over current events in our small, mountain town, it’s fair to say the entire community of Little People was bracing for an onslaught of derogatory language and hurtful remarks. The “Nedheads” Facebook group, however, was proactive in taking the higher road. “A moderator of the group had posted that no derogatory terms or jokes were to be on this page.” Shae shared, “I felt amazed. I felt stood up for. I felt that someone had realized how much pain the short statured people of this community were going to be in…I can’t thank all of you enough. It’s things like these that make me proud to be a citizen of Nederland.”
October is Dwarfism Awareness Month. Please visit the Little People’s Association website (lpaonline.org) to learn more.
Arwen Ek is the founding director of The Holistic Homestead, a Colorado Nonprofit Corporation dedicated to increasing health literacy, building healthy communities and advocating for the medically underserved. Follow our blog at http://theholistichomestead.org