Dwarfism—No Small Matter for Workplace Equality
I came upon the Midget City News by accident.
When my great uncle died in 1997, my grandmother, mom and I went to his apartment to collect his things. My uncle had been a loner in his later years after his wife died. He was also somewhat of a hoarder with an apartment full of knickknacks and novelties.
Without any heirs—other than a half-dozen cats—or any other living immediate family members in the area besides his sister (my grandmother), there was no one else to go through his stuff before the landlord gutted the place.
As an asthmatic, I learned quickly that this was not the place for me. The stench was horrific. While I was gasping for air and realizing I had to get out of there quickly, I noticed an old newspaper in a plastic cover: Midget City News. Whether my uncle bought it or acquired it firsthand, I’ll never know. Intrigued, I took it home and it has sat in my home office ever since. I hadn’t even taken it out of the bag until I began composing this blog for fear that the brittle pages would decompose. The newspaper was produced in 1934 as part of the Century of Progress World’s Fair that took place in Burnham Park on the Near South Side of Chicago.
Indeed, part of the World’s Fair had what was known as a “Midget Village” modeled after the “ancient Bavarian city of Dinkelspuhl” (perhaps a misspelling of Dinkelsbühl) populated by “Lilliputians” who were led by Mayor Major Doyle. The newspaper has stories about “the world’s tiniest filling station” and a $1,000 reward to “any normally proportioned midget of the adult age of 21 years for men and 18 years for women, who is found to be as tiny in stature as, respectively for sex, Capt. Werner Ritter or Miss Margaret Ann Robinson.”
While today this offensive exhibit would never take place, or at least we hope it wouldn’t, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for the 1930s. People with dwarfism have historically had a hard time finding work, so it has been common for them to entertain to make ends meet, whether it’s on the carnival circuit, the big screen as “Munchkins” or “Oompa Loompas,” or TV shows such as Half Pint Brawlers. So has progress really been made?
I emailed Gary Arnold, president of the Little People of America, or LPA, to get his take. “I think the most significant difference between this generation and previous generations is awareness,” Arnold told me.
Of course, I didn’t know this at the time, but the LPA, a not-for-profit that was formed in 1957 to support people of small stature, had been embroiled in somewhat of a controversy when the entertainment website TMZ ran a story that quoted the LPA under the headline ” ‘Snow White’ Screwed Us Out of Dwarf Roles!!!” The story was about how the movie Snow White & the Huntsman used, with the help of movie magic, average-sized actors instead of people with dwarfism as the dwarfs in the film. You can read Arnold’s response to that story here.
Today, thanks in part to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the estimated 30,000 people with dwarfism in the United States are protected against workplace discrimination. But, as we all know, discrimination hasn’t been eradicated. Arnold pointed to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case from last year where a barista with dwarfism was fired from Starbucks, reportedly because she asked for a stool to do her job. Starbucks later settled with the woman for $75,000.
Arnold also explained how the late Paul Steven Miller, the former commissioner of the EEOC who had dwarfism, had experienced discrimination. In Miller’s 1994 Senate testimony at his EEOC confirmation hearing, he stated that in the 1980s, when he was starting his career, he was highly recruited out of law school until people saw or learned how tall he was. Miller even said that one law firm told him that it wouldn’t hire him because it didn’t want clients to think it was running “a circus freak show.”
The LPA is taking an employment survey of its members, and Arnold shared some early returns: Of the 151 respondents 48 percent said they had experienced pre-employment discrimination; 31 percent said that physical access had been a barrier in their careers; 18 percent said workplace accommodations were denied or inadequate; almost 8 percent said they are unemployed and looking for work; and only 27 percent reported that they had no employment barriers. Overall, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that the unemployment rate for people with a disability was a staggering 15 percent, almost double the overall unemployment rate.
In 2012, we’ve come a long way from “Midget Villages” and “circus freak shows,” but barriers will still exist until hiring managers understand that being small in stature does not preclude someone from being big in ability.
James Tehrani is Workforce Management’s copy desk chief. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.