Monday, July 6, 2009

Is the Word "Midget" Offensive?

At its 2009 Nat'l Conference being held in Brooklyn, NY, the Little People of America has filed a complaint with the FCC regarding the derogatory use of the word "midget." The specific complaint results from an episode of Celebrity Apprentice. This article from The Huffington Post spells out the particulars.

Little People of America is a non-profit support organization for short-statured people (primarily from one of the 200 forms of dwarfism, a medical condition) with over 6000 members nationwide. They have long advocated for the use of the term "Little people" as their preferred term of identification, and do not like people to use the word midget, dwarf, and other terms they see as deprecating, offensive, and insulting.

I belong to another organization, NOSSA, the National Organization of Short-Statured Adults, that advocates for people like me who are on the short side of the normal human adult growth curve, but do not have a medical diagnosis or condition, and therefore do not qualify for protection or special accommodation under the ADA (American's with Disabilities Act.) NOSSA's broad definition of short-statured (from my extreme end of the curve at 4'-10.5") is, for men 5 foot 7 inches or 170.18cm and below and for women 5 foot 2 inches or 157.48cm and below in height. (What I wouldn't give to be "short" at 5'-7"!) NOSSA's primary mission is to fight "heightism."

NOSSA has, of course, come out in support of the LPA's complaint to the FCC over use of the term "midget." Most online dictionaries qualify their definition of the word "midget" with terms like "possibly offensive" or "derogatory" (for example see Merriam-Webster Online.) I know from personal experience that I find the word hurtful when I know it is referring to me.

According to Wikipedia's article "Dwarfism:"


Historically ambiguous, the appropriate term for describing a person of particularly short stature (or specifically with the genetic condition achondroplasia) developed euphemistically over the past few centuries.

"Midget," whose etymology indicates a "small sandfly,"[22] came into prominence in the mid-1800s after Harriet Beecher Stowe used it in her novels Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands and Old Town Folks where she described children and an extremely short man, respectively.[23] Later, the word was deemed offensive because it was the descriptive term applied to P.T. Barnum's dwarfs used for public amusement during the freak show era.[2] It is also not considered accurate as it is not a medical diagnosis, though it is sometimes used to describe those who are particularly short but still proportional.[24]

The first notable use of the term "dwarf" was by the Brothers Grimm in their fairy tale Little Snow White;[25] Jonathan Swift also used it in Gulliver's Travels to describe a giant who was only 20 ft tall compared to his 40 ft peers.[26] The plural form of "dwarf" for a person with dwarfism is "dwarfs", while "dwarves" describes the mythical creature. Dwarf too has been condemned by some as inaccurate and insensitive because of its mythical and fairy tale origins.[2]

The terms "dwarf", "little person", "LP", and "person of short stature" are considered acceptable by most at this point in time.[3]

The word "midget" bothers me because of its history as a pejorative, and because of how it was used by P.T. Barnum. (And think about the extreme irony of the term having been introduced by none other than Harriet Beecher Stowe!

Being called a dwarf bothers me primarily because:

  • It's a factual misstatement and misunderstanding.I do not meet the medical criteria for dwarfism
  • I know that some Little People are offended by it (while some are not.)
  • of the mythological and fairy-tale origins of the word

Just today, I was waiting in a hallway to pick up Abigail from camp, a young boy started staring at me and said at full voice "Mom, that's the smallest man I've ever seen." Mom, of course, instead of apologizing or taking advantage of the teachable moment simply told the boy to "move away from there." I certainly hope she had a private conversation with him later, not just about politeness in public, but also about accepting people who are different. One can only hope.

This sort of thing happens a lot. When a child makes a statement in the form of a question, for example "Are you a grown-up?" or "Are you a real man?" or "Are you a midget?" or "Are you a dwarf?" I will usually answer them. My answer is often in the form of "people come in all sizes, and I'm just very, very short." If I think there's a chance they'll understand, I might add something like "some people are very short because they have a medical condition that makes them that way. Some people call those people dwarfs, but most of them prefer to be called Little People. I'm short just because that's how I am. Some people call people like me, who are short, but otherwise normally proportioned in our bodies, midgets, but that word is kind of disrespectful and hurtful. I'd like it if you'd just call me a short person, but I'd like it even more if you just called me Adrian."

I can't say I've experienced much overt heightism in my adult life, though, looking back, I think there may have been some cases of covert or unintentional heightism that worked against me. My general experience has been that people accept me as who I am, and perhaps after some initial surprise or discomfort (which most people manage to disguise gracefully) tend to forget over time how short I am.

I do take some pains to inform people that my short stature is not the result of any medical condition. I'm not sure why that is, and I am sometimes troubled by it. Even just writing that makes me skin crawl. It's not so much that I don't want people to think I have a "disease" as it is, I just feel I want to educate people that sometimes people are just short (or tall) because they are. I don't want anyone to look at others as white or black or rich or poor, short or tall, but to simply see others as fellow human beings

I have little to complain about, compared with the challenges faced by so many Little People. And I have managed to work for some caring employers who understood my need to have workspaces ergonomically suited to one of my height. While I would not deny any Little Person the accommodations made to them under ADA, there are those times when I'm a bit jealous and wished that I could legally seek accommodations, or remedy for discrimination.

Now, I have found some solutions to my short stature. Two of the important female partners in my life were/are 5'-9". (Oddly enough, one female partner, who was also of short stature, was the one who seemed to have the hardest time dealing with my height, often expressing that is was awkward to be seen with me in public. Hmmmm.) I have step stools everywhere in the house and keep them around places I work. Yes, I have some of those extension grippers, too. None of that really helps in the supermarket, where I am often forced to climb up the shelving or wait for a friendly passerby if I need an item up on the top shelf. Don't even get me started about men's restrooms in places where they seem to have forgotten that men (and boys) come in all heights.

In second grade, we used go to around the room, up and down the rows for a student each day to put up the American flag at the front of the room. The first time it was my turn, the teacher simply passed me over and went to the next student. I immediately stood up, walked up to her desk, grabbed the flag, dragged her chair to the blackboard, and stood on it to put the flag in its holder. (I was, of course, sent to the Principal's office for that.)

In Elementary School, when I was old enough and it was time to pick new squad members for the AAA Safety Patrol, something to which I had always aspired , I was bluntly told I was too short to be part of the squad. Not sure why I or my parents didn't fight that at the time. I know if that ever happened to a child of mine, I'd have lawyers on the case before you could say "wrongful discrimination."

So, should the word "midget" be banned from television? I'm not so sure about that. As an artist, I am a strong believer in first amendment rights. What I do wish, however, is that scriptwriters, producers, network editors (and censors) consider issues other than just race, creed, color, sexual orientation, et al in deciding what's appropriate. Heightism is as real as racial discrimination. And it sucks. The people involved in that "Celebrity Apprentice" episode do owe the people of LPA and NOSSA (and all Little People and short-statured people everywhere) an apology.

Of course, all this is rather funny and ironic coming from someone who still likes to listen to Firesign Theater's "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers." This is UBlogging, for You, the reader. (You'll only get that if you know the album.)

1 comment:

Nina west said...

Reading your post reminded me of when I was a child and could count on being at the end of the line when the teacher would tell us to line up with the tallest at the front of the line and the shortest at the back. I was always at the end of the line, with two boys who were also pretty short. So we made ourselves into a club. We called ourselves The Micro-organisms. I suspect, though don't specifically remember, that I suggested the name, since my father was a microbiologist and of the three of us I was the one that would have been most likely to have that word in my vocabulary. We even had a song celebrating our micro-organism status. At my full, adult female height of a smidgen under 5'4" I'm still not tall. People have made jokes about my short stature for as long as I can remember, have used me as arm rests and such. But no one has called me a midget and of course being a short female probably isn't as much of a liability as being a short male. Anyway, I enjoyed your post.