Dwarf vs. Dwarf
Systems analyst David Bradford (above) gains some perspective from the deck of his Pearl District loft. "Little people grow up learning how to deal with physical obstacles," he says. "The hard part is the social obstacles."
The LPA has 17,000 members, of whom 8,251 are short-statured (4 feet 10 inches or less). The remainder are family members.
Milwaukee showman Steve Vento, a.k.a. the Nacho Man, takes pride in his dramato-culinary bravura. "This is probably the best job I've ever had," the restaurateur says.
LPA members include teachers, nurses, welders, clergy, mechanics, insurance adjusters, bakers, astrophysicists, florists and professors.
Estimates of the number of
dwarves in the United States range from 75,000 to 200,000. The usual estimate
is 100,000, which
The LPA was founded in 1957. Its motto: Think Big. Birthplace: Reno, Nev., "The Biggest Little City in the World."
Anthropologist Joan Ablon of University of California-San Francisco has written two perceptive books on the lives of dwarves: Little People in America: The Social Dimensions of Dwarfism and Living With Difference: Families With Dwarf Children.
The Little People
They live in a world of giants: a world of craned necks and heavy doors, where bank counters represent an awkward stretch and top shelves are always just out of reach. It is a world calibrated to someone else's measurements, filled with everyday items, from bicycles to umbrellas, that were never intended for their diminutive proportions.
In the words of dwarf actor Billy Barty, "You don't know discrimination until you walk up to a 19-inch toilet with your 13-inch inseam."
Next week, approximately 1,000 dwarves and their families will converge on Portland for the national conference of the Little People of America--a gathering that is, for the profoundly short of stature, the social event of the year.
The LPA has come a long way since it was founded by Barty in 1957. The organization now boasts doctors, lawyers, engineers and politicians among its ranks. But as it prepares to take center stage at the Portland Marriott, the group finds itself in the middle of an increasingly contentious debate between dwarves whose careers hinge on being taken seriously and dwarves whose paychecks depend on their amusement value.
Systems analyst David Bradford stands 3 feet 8 inches--about as tall as the average 5-year-old boy. He uses pedal extenders to drive his truck and barbecue tongs to fish his clothes out of the washer. Because of a condition known as brachydactylia, his fingers are too short to grasp a spoon in the usual manner, so he holds it between his index and middle fingers--just as you'd hold a cigarette, except pointing the other way.
Bradford downplays the mechanical improvisation. "Little people grow up learning how to deal with physical obstacles. By the time you're an adult, you don't even think about it," he says. "The hard part is the social obstacles."
The 36-year-old Oregon State University geology grad spent 11 years as a programmer, systems analyst and Webmaster for Cascade Corporation, a Gresham firm that makes forklift attachments. He enjoys poker, kayaking and golf and is chairman of the McKenzie Lofts Homeowners Association.
Of course, his height does not appear on his résumé, but in many ways it looms over his career. "There's always the fear you're not being taken seriously in your profession and that you're being passed over for opportunities," he says. "You're always second-guessing the situation."
Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is now easier than ever for dwarves to make their way into the mainstream of American society. But as they reach for new heights in the professional world, they feel they are being held back by the likes of the Nacho Man.
At 4 feet 2 inches, there's nothing Steve Vento enjoys more than rattling cages. He has worked in circuses, carnivals and nightclubs since he was 11 years old. He has also performed roles in advertisements as the Hamburglar, Big Boy and Mr. Yuk. But Vento's latest role has touched off a furor in the LPA. Since January, Vento has been working at Nacho Mama's, a Mexican restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisc., where he dons a black jumpsuit and an enormous modified sombrero with corn chips in its rim and salsa in its crest. Diners beckon him to their table and help themselves to a snack. "People eat off my head," Vento says. "I'm a walking buffet."
Vento, who owns a part interest in the restaurant, also does balloons and magic tricks. He describes the gig as "probably the best job I've ever had."
"I'm a people person," says the 39-year-old former car salesman. "What I have is not a disability or a handicap. It's a gift God gave me. I make people happy with my job. What's wrong with making people happy?"
The idea has proved so successful, Vento says, that he is considering opening a string of franchises.
This is the sort of talk that makes many dwarves shudder. Anthony Soares, the LPA's vice-president for public relations, excoriated Vento's act as "barbaric" and "humiliating."
For dwarves whose living depends on their credibility as professionals, the antics of the Nacho Man are particularly nettlesome because they reinforce the idea that dwarves are, well, something to laugh about.
"This is a difficult issue," says Portlander Ken Lee, a 35-year-old dwarf who stands 4 feet 5 inches. "When dwarves are seen like that, it hurts our image, especially since there is not a corresponding portrayal of dwarves in a more positive light.
"Think about popular culture--plays, movies, TV series. It's hard to think of a dwarf that's been portrayed as a normal, everyday person," Lee says. "You don't see the dwarf mechanic, which some are, or a social worker, which some are, and you certainly never see a dwarf physician."
Lee should know. He's a pediatric gastroenterologist at Doernbecher Children's Hospital. Sitting in an office cluttered with medical textbooks, Lee leans back in his chair, legs dangling above the floor, and dissects questions with clinical precision.
"Most of the barriers I'm encountering are not...obvious," he says. "It's the subtle ways in which some people treat you. They don't give you the same respect."
An avid basketball fan and aviation-history enthusiast, Lee has become more aware of social prejudice against dwarves since completing his residency. "When you're a resident, you are being picked on because you're a resident," he says. "But now that I'm an attending physician, I'm realizing that society views dwarfism as something different."
"We've had a hard time getting people to look at us as real people," agrees Matt Roloff, a high-tech executive from Hillsboro who stands 4 feet 2 inches. "We're always looked down on."
About a month ago, I sat around a conference table at the paper's weekly staff meeting and outlined a proposal to write about the LPA conference (see "Unconventional Convention," page 26).
The room exploded with laughter. Then came the wisecracks.
"Don't sell 'em short!"
Here we are, a group of educated, reasonably liberal people, but we just can't resist the dwarf jokes. I mean, the idea of 1,000 little people taking over the Marriott Hotel--it's just so weird.
A few days later, however, I find myself blushing as I recount this incident to David Bradford while we sit in his fourth-floor Pearl District loft, which looks much like any other loft, apart from a stepladder in the kitchen and a desk with sawed-off legs.
Bradford doesn't say anything. He doesn't have to.
Dwarves are acutely aware of the way they are perceived by the mainstream--schoolyard taunts have seen to that. "It was pretty brutal," says 21-year-old Irene Yuan, a Washington County art student who stands 3 feet 11 inches. "Everywhere we go, we feel like people are watching us."
And if they need confirmation of their public image, they can grab the remote control.
In truth, the Nacho Man is really just the tip of the iceberg. From the WWF's midget wrestlers to Hank the Angry Drunk Dwarf on The Howard Stern Show, from the barroom "sport" of dwarf-tossing (which recently resurfaced in Springfield, Mo.), to Mini-Me, the pint-sized villain of the latest Austin Powers film, dwarf entertainers are all over popular culture--and generally not in very lofty roles.
All of which puts the LPA in an awkward spot. Until recently, one of the few career avenues for dwarves lay in show business, and the LPA itself was founded by actor Billy Barty.
Although dwarves who work in the entertainment field now make up just 9 percent of the LPA membership, they represent a highly visible and vocal faction within the organization--and they haven't been shy about voicing their support for the Nacho Man.
Indeed, when Anthony Soares' withering responses to Vento's Nacho Man act showed up in press reports (sample headline: "Organization for Short People Blasts Restaurant Featuring Dwarf Server"), entertainers in the LPA hit the roof. "A lot of people were upset with Anthony," says Daniel Margulies, who edits the LPA newsletter. "They said, 'You're representing your views, but you're not representing the organization.'"
One of Vento's supporters is LPA member Danny Black, a professional clown and talent agent who stands 4 feet 2 inches. He drove four hours from Michigan to catch Vento's act. "I wanted to see what it was all about," says Black. "He's doing a lot of what I do--taking advantage of my disadvantage. I saw nothing I was uncomfortable with. He just leans over, and you pick some chips out of his hat."
Black, whose stage characters include Dandy the Clown, Ernie the Elf, Super Munchkin Man and the Low Ranger, says that he and other entertainers use their height as a "gimmick"--nothing more, nothing less. "Whether you're 4 foot 2 or 6 foot 3, as an entertainer you've got to have a talent, and Steve has that," he says. "Your size can't carry you through the whole performance."
Soares stood by his comments in an interview with WW. "It is absolutely Mr. Vento's right to do what he's doing," said Soares, a political consultant from Hoboken, N.J. "It's a woman's right to stand on a bar and strip for guys if she wants to. But does it help advance the cause of women in the business world? No. This sets us back. They would not put a sombrero on a guy who's 6 feet tall--it wouldn't be funny. But they put it on a dwarf, and it's a joke. They say he's got a whole comedy routine. But he could do that without a sombrero on his head. That makes his height the issue instead of his talent.
"I will never take back my comments on behalf of the LPA," Soares continues. "It's degrading and disgusting. You would never see an Asian person in a Chinese restaurant pulling a rickshaw. We have to represent our membership, and we have to have a set of standards."
The story has a strange postscript. Shortly after the controversy erupted, Soares announced his resignation as vice-president, effective at the end of the Portland conference, fueling speculation that his departure was triggered by the incident--a charge Soares denies. Meanwhile, Vento told WW that he is considering running for president of the LPA next year.
Little people are by no means the first minority group to grapple with the problem of stereotyping in the entertainment industry: Just think of the blackface minstrelsy of Al Jolson or those old Charlie Chan movies. But dwarves feel particularly vulnerable to being maligned in the media, in part because the average average-sized person has few opportunities to meet a dwarf in real life. For this reason, they also worry about coming across as sanctimonious whiners.
They aren't. Critics of the Nacho Man concede that he is well within his rights to make a living however he sees fit, and a recent query about Mini-Me provoked a generally positive response from a dwarfism e-mail group ("Shagadelic!" wrote one correspondent), despite the fact that he is silent and sinister (but really no more absurd than the film's average-sized characters).
The thorny issue of whether the LPA should take an official stance on topics such as the Nacho Man is unlikely to be resolved at the conference. Dwarves will always stand out from the crowd. And there will always be someone willing to strap on a helmet for barroom sport or erupt into choreographed fistfights on Jerry Springer.
The question is whether such performers will be seen as typical representatives of a freakish tribe or as ordinary people, packaged in a slightly different way, subject to the same human failings and the need to earn a living.
Many people are under the impression that dwarves are not just short but disproportionately so, with abbreviated arms and legs but otherwise average-sized, whereas midgets look more like kids who never hit puberty. In fact, the situation is far more complex. There are at least 100 different kinds of dwarfism--some caused by genetics, others by hormonal deficiency or malnutrition.
By far the most common form of dwarfism is achondroplasia, caused by a spontaneous (or non-hereditary) mutation in a gene that is involved in bone formation. Estimated to affect one in 14,000 births, achondroplasia is characterized by shortened arms and legs, an average-sized torso and a slightly enlarged head. "Achons" tend to be taller than other types of dwarves and suffer fewer medical problems. The late Herve Villechaize, who played Tattoo on Fantasy Island, was an achon.
The term "midget" has fallen out of favor; most dwarves find it highly offensive. The condition it refers to, known variously as pituitary or hypopituitary dwarfism, is caused by low or non-existent levels of somatotropin, or growth hormone. Hypopituitary dwarves usually stop growing in childhood but retain typical body proportions. The condition is now seldom seen because it can often be treated with hormone injections if detected before adolescence. As a result, it is rare to encounter hypopituitary dwarves who are younger than 40.
Another form of dwarfism is spondylo-epiphyseal dysplasia (SED), reckoned to affect one in 95,000 births. Caused by a spontaneous mutation of a gene that manufactures collagen, SED is often associated with nearsightedness, osteoarthritis, retinal detachment, hernia, cleft palate and hearing loss.
Caused by a mutation in a gene that produces cartilage, diastrophic dysplasia affects an estimated one in 110,000 births. Diastrophic dwarves often have significant curvature of the leg and spine and sometimes require crutches or wheelchairs to get around. Other medical challenges include joint pain, club foot, cleft palate and arthritis. Two notable physical features are "hitchhiker's thumb" and "cauliflower ears."
The various types of dwarfism are more than merely medical categories. Historically, there has been a tendency in the LPA for dwarves to socialize according to their type: achons hanging out with achons, hypopituitaries with hypopituitaries and so on. Dwarves interviewed by WW say this is no longer the case, however.
Privately, some little people also note that dwarves are not immune to cultural messages about stature. "Height's still a major factor in the LPA," says one achon. Other dwarves disagree. "When you get to the convention, you suddenly see how irrelevant height is," says Daniel Margulies, a hypopituitary dwarf. "All of a sudden you don't see the height. You just see people. And sometimes you realize, 'I have nothing in common with this guy.' I'm 45 years old. I'm not going to talk to a teenager about rap music."
The type of dwarfism also has a tremendous impact on the next generation. The genetic mutation that causes achondroplasia is dominant: If one parent is an achon, there's a 50 percent chance the child will also be an achon. If both parents are achons, there's still a 50 percent chance the child be an achon; but there's also a 25 percent chance the child will inherit two copies of the mutant gene, a fatal condition known as double-dominant syndrome. (The same goes for SED.)
With the discovery in 1994 of the gene responsible for achondroplasia, achon couples are increasingly opting for genetic testing. Some forms of dwarfism, such as diastrophic dysplasia, are caused by a recessive gene: If only one parent has the condition, it is exceedingly unlikely that the child will be a dwarf. But if both parents have the condition, there's a 100 percent chance the child will inherit it.
The National Conference of the Little People of America, to be held July 2-9 at the Portland Marriott, will feature a variety of events. There will be symposia on medical and employment issues, parenting workshops, fashion shows, basketball (no, they don't lower the rims), weight lifting, dinner cruises on the Willamette and outings to the Columbia Gorge. There will be drinking, dancing and romance, climaxing in a formal banquet the night of July 8.
The LPA has a somewhat protective attitude toward the conference: Most events are restricted to registered conference-goers lest they attract a horde of long-limbed voyeurs, and journalists are thoroughly grilled when applying for press passes.
Many average-sized people are uncertain of the proper etiquette when interacting with dwarves. There are few hard and fast rules. Some dwarves appreciate offers of help in an awkward situation, while others prefer to fend for themselves.
Use common sense. Shake hands. Groan about the weather. Beware of the tendency to infantilize, or assume dwarves are younger than their actual ages, simply because of their height. Avoid outright gaffes such as patting on the head, uttering moronic comments and staring.
Some little people appreciate low-key efforts to make eye contact on an
even level by kneeling down or making appropriate seating arrangements. And
please, don't call them midgets.
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