Guest Author - Monica J. Foster
I’ve been a fan of The Learning Channel’s various series, “Little People, Big World" and "The Little Couple" lately. It's nice to see shows that celebrate people with disabilities, without pity, living their lives like everyone else -- even if TLC seems to be focusing largely on people of short stature, but it may be good to focus on one section of the disability population at a time, particularly a part of the disability population that isn't as well noticed or accommodated as the rest of people with disabilities.
Still, I hope that this is only the beginning and various channels will take notice of TLC's lead on stories like these by continuing to weave a longer thread of disability awareness, stretching into other disability life experiences
I have to admit, I enjoy advocating and coaching people of all ability statuses, but I have learned even more from these two televised examples of living life to the fullest regardless of height beyond my personal experiences. These and other shows on little people, as they prefer to be called, give me more insight into my late friend Jeannie, who was of short stature at 3'9". The challenges that she faced and that are faced by people of short stature are a little different compared to other disabilities, particularly like mine as a wheelchair user or an amputee. For the most part, short stature is not always recognized and accommodated as well as other disabilities.
My dearest friend Jeannie was always great traveling with to different conferences and we seemed to meet in the middle with each other helping where the other needed it. Things I needed to be higher to transfer into and out of my wheelchair were too high for Jeannie to maneuver onto without her portable step stool. Things she needed lowered for her, such as a tub's edge, were too low for me and my shower transfer bench. Still, we managed to be the best travel companion for the other in these circumstances.
And there were things we both needed assistance with no matter how we tried. I laugh recalling we always needed a bellman to move our towels in a hotel room to a lower level or else risk tossing soap at the wall (possibly knocking ourselves in the head) trying to work the towels down. Our antics to avoid calling for help invariably ended with us both laughing and breathless before swalling pride and calling the front desk for assistance. You'd think after this routine, we'd know better, but sometimes you just forget when you're with friends.
I'm sure the person in the next room thought a couple of kids were having a great time in the bathroom next door tossing things around. We weren't kids, but we almost always found ways to turn our mutual challenges into a fun sort of chaos. And we learned from one another like children sharing new experiences with one another -- one step at a time.
I admit through watching these TLC series, my awareness regarding the complex issues of little people has been raised beyond what Jeannie's friendship taught me before she passed away from heart problems.
From what I learned from both Jeannie and these shows, healthcare is one of the most compelling areas of concern for little people. It can be challenging to connect with medical professionals who have the specialized knowledge and training needed to address medical issues related to the various forms of dwarfism, and there are many forms. Obtaining health insurance often can be difficult as well, just as it is for my friends with cerebral palsy. I wonder if healthcare reform will help in that area, as contentious an issue as it may be right now? It is estimated that there 200 types of dwarfism that have yet to be fully researched, including primordial dwarfism, on which another couple of TLC documentaries are based.
Adoption of a child with issues related to significant short stature may also cause financial and healthcare cost issues to hopeful families. The cost of adopting a dwarf child who faces prohibitive health care, creates obstacles for families desiring to initiate adoptions within the population. Similarly, potential adoptive dwarf parents face the same obstacles in adopting average size children if they themselves cannot or choose not to have their own biological children.
As far as education is concerned, scholarships and grants exist for most people of minority status including various disabilities like spina bifida, visual impairments and the like, but being a little person or having dwarfism often does not meet the qualification criteria on many levels.
There are two major organizations that I'm aware of that exist to support and advocate for people with dwarfism and other forms of significant short stature. Little People of America (LPA) is a non-profit organization which provides support and information to those with dwarfism and their families. Membership in LPA is limited to people 4' 10" and under, their families, or those who "demonstrate a well-founded interest in issues relating to dwarfism."
LPA was started informally when in 1957, short-statured actor Billy Barty called others of short stature to join him in a weeklong get-together in Reno, Nevada. That original meeting of 21 people grew into Little People of America.
Coalition For Dwarf Advocacy, another organization dedicated to advocacy for people of short stature, offers expertise and support to champion a myriad of issues affecting little people and their families. In addition, part of CODA’s mission includes being able to benefit not just the dwarf population, but all people of short stature who are not classified as dwarfs who still face significant lifestyle challenges.
The people portrayed in TLC's shows are examples of living large with short stature. They deserve praise for portraying realistic examples of little people who struggle and succeed like anyone else through so many of life's issues in their own way. And, these shows set an example of motivation for all people, with or without disabilities, facing challenges related to health, employment, education and accessibility.
I'd like to see other networks show even more positive and realistic portrayals of people in wheelchairs, active amputees and other people with disabilities, living their lives beyond limits. It would give people without disability experience a peek into our respective worlds and a safe opportunity to learn without feeling like they are gawking or asking weird questions.
Yet, I hope it widens us all to the opportunity to be open to asking and answering questions of each other, realizing we aren't that different. Asking questions and observing are how we learn. And no question is ever dumb. It's only senseless to avoid asking and to remain uneducated.
How do we measure up in the the area of broadening disability awareness? Are we open to opportunities for learning and teaching, or are we closed doors that frustrate curious minds. Let's all be big enough to learn and teach one another, sharing in our lives' triumphs and challenges. It will further prove we aren't so different in the grander picture.