People With Dwarfism Deserve Respect, Not Ridicule
Most people will never meet someone with dwarfism – dwarfing conditions are very rare – and so their frame of reference is likely to be just what they’ve seen on television and film, or some other arena. They will never understand the amount of public scrutiny and ridicule a person with dwarfism deals with on a daily basis. They can’t know what it is like to be filmed in public or photographed without permission, and how common it is to be shouted at from cars.
They can’t know how sad and lonely it feels to be having a great day and then to be made to feel like a freak for sale. To be minding your own business, feeling part of the world and a valued member of the community, only to feel cast out again. To discover, for example, that a nightclub has decided to whip up trade by offering customers “free midgets”.
If you were lucky enough to miss that story, a Manchester club has been marketing an £850 VIP package that includes a “Tweedledee” or “Tweedledum” character who will not just wait on your table but dance on demand.
Many average-height people don’t even realise that most people with dwarfism find the word “midget” offensive. It has never been a medical term, unlike “dwarf” or “dwarfism”, which refers to people under about 4ft 10in. The M-word was invented in the 1800s by the freak-shows of the time. It derives from the word “midge”, meaning a small fly. Not very nice connotations.
People with dwarfism – my preferred term – know far more than they should about “othering”. What do I mean by that? I mean when someone says or does something that makes you feel isolated. When people, either as individuals or as a group, identify you as “not one of us”. When society, either subtly or obviously, treats you differently and stigmatises you. Everyone has experienced “otherness” at some point. Maybe you have been a different social class to everyone else in the room; maybe you have a disability or have felt different because you looked different. It can be a little exclusion or a big one.
This is an opinion piece, so I suppose I should be giving my opinion – but this time I want to ask the questions. If I asked you, “Is someone with dwarfism disabled?” what would you think? Is someone disabled if door handles are too high to reach and doors are too heavy for them to open? Is someone disabled if walking makes them very tired, because they have to take so many little steps to get anywhere? Are you disabled if you can’t make a cup of tea safely in a standard kitchen? Or if the majority of housing available to rent is inaccessible to you? If you can’t reach the locks to open the doors, the taps in the bathroom, or get in and out of the bathtub? What about not being mobile enough to manage stairs? Or if you can’t drive a standard vehicle without modification?
Should people with dwarfism – or other disabled people – be objects of ridicule or titillation? Or should we be accepted as people who are worthy of dignity and respect, with access to society, work opportunities, transport and housing?
What I’ve just outlined is a very simplified version of the social model of disability. It may be the first time you have thought about a person with dwarfism as being disabled. But the model says – and I believe – that I am disabled not by dwarfism but by the barriers that society creates. Ideological barriers, such as the idea that I should be a novelty entertainment in a nightclub and that’s all I can hope to achieve; and physical barriers, such as the failure to adjust the built environment, from housing and transport, to schools and post offices.
I work as an actor, and have appeared in three productions for the National Theatre, as well as in the West End and on television and film. Like Peter Dinklage, Lisa Hammond and Meredith Eaton, to name but a few actors with dwarfism who I admire, I have avoided stereotyped roles for my whole career. My selectivity has been made possible because I was afforded an education and can confidently walk away from acting and into other work, if necessary. A reporter recently pointed out that I “always play a character with dwarfism” which is like saying Chiwetel Ejiofor only ever plays black characters. I always play a character with dwarfism because I have dwarfism and even if the character was written to be of average height, if you cast me, she suddenly shrinks to Kiruna size. But I won’t conform to preconceptions.
The dwarf tropes I choose to sidestep include Christmas elves, leprechauns, garden gnomes – basically, roles that reduce a character to a one-dimensional gag. This isn’t always so simple to define. I was once offered an elf role, which I would have considered, if they would also consider allowing me to double as an average-height character. They could have used the same CGI they use to shrink tall actors to play the dwarfs in films such as The Huntsman. I don’t think they ever really considered my suggestion. But my issues are about the landscape of representation, not just the politics of individual casting choices.
I understand why some people accept the sort of work I don’t want to take. Some average-height women find stripping or working in the porn industry empowering for example. In the same way, some people with dwarfism, I imagine, can find taking on a stereotypical role empowering. It enables them to own the objectification.
This isn’t for me and I don’t think it helps us socially, but I would never suggest they can’t do it. Ultimately, it is their choice, but it doesn’t stop me campaigning for positive and more normalising roles for disabled actors. Because whether I am a customer in that nightclub or a member of an audience watching an actor in a demeaning role, I am also reduced to being a “midget” and become as objectified as the performer – and that wasn’t my choice.
If I ever do “sell out”, I hope it is because the character is an interesting, three-dimensional one, who explores the dynamics of the human condition. Also – and I do always include this as a clause – we all have our price. I have just never been offered mine yet.
I believe all the work we do, whatever our profession, should feed positively into the world, rather than cheapen our value as people. We need to foster kindness and humanity, not encourage dehumanisation. If a nightclub wants to pull in more punters, let’s see them offer free cocktails, not free “midgets”. If they do employ someone with dwarfism as a waiter, it should be because they are good at their job – not for a cheap gimmick.