10/18/2012 05:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Awareness Paves the Way for Opportunity

There are an estimated 30,000 people with dwarfism in the United States. For the most part, the lives of people with dwarfism mirror the lives of people in the broader community. We go to school and we secure jobs as administrative assistants, accountants, teachers, lawyers, doctors, bankers, and executives. Some of us get married, and some of us have children.

Clearly, there are also differences between people with dwarfism and people in the broader community. Most often, those differences are related to physical stature. At times, the differences create barriers that hinder our pursuit of education, social and employment opportunities. Sometimes, the barriers are easily navigated with a relatively simple accommodation. For example, most dwarfs can't reach the gas and the brake in a typical car. Pedal extenders allow dwarfs to drive. With the ability to drive, dwarfs, like others, are given the independence to commute to work, drive to school, and go out with their friends. Other times, the barriers are social. A few years ago, a young woman sent a post to a dwarfism list serve. The message said that a big box store had posted an "Accepting Applications" sign. The young woman went in and asked for an application. She was told the sign was old. She was told it should have been taken down. Later that day, in a quasi-sting operation, the young woman's friend, who is not a dwarf, went to the same store and asked for an application. She was given an application and offered a job on the same day. The young woman was refused an application, not because of her skills or experience, but because of another person's bias toward dwarfism.

Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act give people with dwarfism a tool to fight against discrimination, as a community. To reinforce that support, people with dwarfism are addressing what lies at the root of the social barrier. Social barriers can be traced to a lack of awareness about dwarfism. Recently, positive exposure in popular culture through reality television and through the work of actors such as Peter Dinklage, Mark Povenelli, and Danny Woodburn, has addressed some of the social barriers. Today, the average viewer of television is more likely to see a dwarf on television portrayed as a three dimensional person than as a visual punch line. Nevertheless, more must be done to raise awareness.

Recognizing the need to share more information about dwarfism, Little People of America launched Dwarfism Awareness Month in 2009. In October of each year, Little People of America organizes events and outreach to boost awareness about dwarfism. The goal of Dwarfism Awareness Month is simple. People with dwarfism want the opportunity to pursue educational, employment and social opportunities on common ground with members of the general community. Though we celebrate who we are as a community, we want to be judged according to our skills, our character, and our experience, not according to something over which we have no control, our stature. The more we raise awareness about dwarfism, the closer we will come to this goal. Since 2009, Delaware, Indiana, Oklahoma, Missouri and Puerto Rico have all passed resolutions recognizing October as Dwarfism Awareness Month. New York just recently joined the list. California, New Mexico, New Jersey and Kansas will join the list later in October.

To celebrate New York's recent addition to the list of states that recognize Dwarfism Awareness Month, about 75 people met in Times Square on September 23. The event included members of Little People of America and members of about 10 other groups for people with dwarfism, and groups that support people with dwarfism. Everyone gathered in the Hilton Times Square Hotel for a media event with New York Assemblywoman Nancy Calhoun, who sponsored the New York Resolution, then filed out onto 42nd Street for a photo opportunity under a Little People of America Public Service Announcement that ran on the CBS Jumbotron through September. For the people in attendance, the event was more than a media and photo opportunity. The event was a celebration of our community, and a chance to look forward to where we can go, both as a community, and as individuals.

As people with dwarfism pursue opportunities, every step will not be easy. On September 25, just two days after the New York event, on an episode of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," a former governor used the m-word. Later this month, a theater in Wisconsin is hosting midget wrestling. While some may argue midget is just a word, it sends a shudder down the back of tens of thousands of people in the United States, especially when used by a political figure in mainstream media. While some may argue that midget wrestling is a personal choice made by those who participate, it is a reminder that remnants of the side show and freak show era, when people with dwarfism were put on display because of their physical differences, still linger today. In the end, use of the m-word, and most other barriers, both physical and social, are just setbacks. They are setbacks that can be addressed with awareness, (when informed about how people feel about the word midget, the governor apologized). They are setbacks that will be overcome by the power generated from the group that met in Times Square on September 23, and by the power that will be generated by the group that meets in Sacramento later in October when California announces the State's Dwarfism Awareness Month Resolution. In New York, California, and everywhere in between, people with dwarfism, their family, friends and supporters, are moving forward, bringing us closer to a time when all of us will participate on equal footing.