“What offends us…”

Essay by Leonard Sawisch, PHD:

Most of us in the United States have been teased or harassed or otherwise had our personal space invaded “just because” we are members of the dwarf community. Our reactions can range from indifference to humiliation; from announce to outrage and sometimes perhaps even fear for our safety. Because of their connection to us, our average-sized family members, friends, and peers have more than likely felt the same things.

Somewhere around third grade, our average sized son Brandon started getting into schoolyard fights. Lenette (always the more insightful parent) realized what was happening. Kids would come up to Brandon and ask “aren’t you the kid whose parents are midgets?” Regardless of the intent of the question, Brandon was raised in the dwarf community where midget was the nigger word. In his young mind he saw no choice but to defend his family’s honor!

I was devastated. I had spent over a decade of my life as a disability advocate and spokesperson for the dwarf community promoting “politically correct” use of terminology. I had helped make the word midget such a powerfully negative word that it was endangering my son! And we had never actually talked about the word — he just picked up the value from growing up with little people. So we sat him right down and began desensitizing the word midget. We also enrolled him in Karate class so he would learn that violence was a last resort.

I had made a classic mistake. I had confused the word midget with the way it was used by people who intended to make me feel bad. Ironically, midget is the newest term for people like us. It was coined by PT Barnum in the mid 1800’s to describe members of the dwarf community who were the most socially acceptable, i.e., “well proportioned” little people who could entertain on the front stage for polite society. The rest of the dwarf community, those of us whose bodies are shaped differently enough to look more than just “really short,” were relegated to the back stage or freak shows.

In fact, even into the 1950’s, it was still considered more socially acceptable to be a midget than to be any other kind of dwarf! I remember hearing parents say “if my child has to be small, then thank god she’s a midget, and not a dwarf.” And little people themselves would fight over who could call themselves midget and who couldn’t. Billy Barty, our organization’s founder, was raised in this era, and grew up claiming to be a midget, even though his “wind swept” legs and “stubby” fingers would not meet the standards of the more conservative midgets.

So what happened? First, LPA happened. Originally to be called “Midgets of America”, the folks who could afford to attend the early meetings were as likely to be non-midgets as midgets. So a compromise was made to call the group Midgets and Dwarfs of America (notice who came first). It didn’t take long, however, for the fledgling members to notice that the non-midgets (by Barnum’s standards) were greatly out-numbering the midgets. So a second compromise was struck to call the group “Little People of America.”

Second, PT Barnum was so good at showmanship that the term midget became common vernacular, and used for almost anything smaller than usual. As a result, It became the word that most people learned and used. Which meant that when people wanted to call attention to short stature and body differentness, midget was the first word to come to mind. Those of us raised in this country from the fifties and after came to associate “midget” only as a bad and hurtful word.

In the 1970’s, perhaps as a parallel with the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement, some of the younger members of LPA began using the term “dwarf” and “dwarf power” as a symbol of self and group pride. At first, the older little people (and their average sized families and friends) were horrified! They felt the midget/dwarf issue had been resolved and that “Little People” had won the day. To them, “dwarf” was as negative as “midget” seems to be today.

However, the intent of the people using the term was empowerment. The message was strength and unity. When the Dwarf Athletic Association of America was formed in the mid 1980’s, there was still quite a stir about the use of “that” word. But again, the intent was empowerment and pride; the opportunity for people like us to excel in athletic competition, to be America’s best at something. It was pretty hard to resist that kind of positive appeal. As a result, I can refer to us as the dwarf community today without raising too many eyebrows. I can also refer to us as the LPA community with a similar reaction.

Why can’t I write about us as the midget community? I imagine just about everyone reading this just had a visceral reaction that wasn’t positive, even though in much of the rest of the world it is the preferred terminology. But I admit it wasn’t all that easy for me to write it!

I have let myself be a victim of my times, and maybe that’s why I wrote it. Because it is time to take some of the power away from the word midget. We can’t afford to let ourselves and our children be victimized by that word any longer. And the word will not go away. We need to toss the word around more amongst ourselves. We need to de-mystify it and play with it and understand it in new ways. We need to begin to reflect it in our art and our culture in ways that reduce its negative impact. We need to make fun of the way it has been used. Maybe we need to visit a midget petting zoo and find some peace.