Over the years, and what informs most of my work is the silencing of the Dwarfism experience. Incidents happen and more often than not, an average-height, non-disabled person, whether that be friends, family and well-meaning acquaintances, will tell you to just get on with it. It’s all meant well, that by getting on with it, everything will be ok. Yet what happens if when just getting on with it just isn’t enough?
There was a recent incident where I attended a youth club with my daughter. A group of teenagers who walked passed on the way in did that glance back. There were hushed tones and smirks while looking back at us. It sent my anxiety through the roof. On this occasion, I ignored the behaviour because I didn’t want my daughter to realise what was happening.
Negative attention of this nature is incredibly subtle and incredibly deniable by the perpetrators.
The Dwarf person has to assess the situation they are brought into. In a split second whether there’s a risk to our own personal safety, the type of people involved and whether or not we’ll end up with more aggravation if we challenge the prejudice and ignorance we are faced with. And in this case, whether I should have had a quiet word with the youth workers and what knock-on effect it would have for my daughter attending (when I’m not there) in the future.
I shared the experience on my Facebook Page, asking for advice from other Dwarf parents what they do in such situations. An AH person chipped in with a response I’m sure that most of us in the Dwarfism community has experienced many times in our lives. That I have a choice in how I react to incidents like this. That perhaps the teenagers were curious (they weren’t, they were laughing) or that I should’ve challenged them.
Firstly, this response is typical of the AH community. It is based naively on the assumption that the offenders are unaware of the abuse they are dishing out. As we Dwarf people well know, these aren’t some poor creatures who don’t know what they are doing. All too often, it’s about AH people trying to make themselves look bigger in front of their mates.
Secondly, such responses to these incidents places the accountability and responsibility of the crap behaviour on the victim to deal with the aftermath and ensuing fallout. There’s an element of shame being dealt out as well. That there is something lacking in the victim when placed in a difficult situation.
Thirdly, it absolves the behaviour of the people acting horribly rather than challenging the perpetrators and way society deals with ingrained prejudice and lack of support for disabled people.
Finally, such a response says to the person being laughed at (or bullied) – your experiences don’t matter. That your concerns and worries have no place to heard, acknowledged, listened to or supported. These aren’t one-off incidents for a Dwarf person. We shake off these sorts of microaggressions multiple times a day. It’s exhausting.
Being dismissed by those you seek support from, is often as distressing as the original incident. Because the places that you look to for support, you ask for help, to be listened to, is shut down. You’re left wondering if you could’ve done more. If you’d acted more confident, if you’d dressed another way, if you’d taken your husband with you they would have respected your presence more.
When in fact it’s not about us, it’s a failing of society to deal and not tolerate bullying.
Such responses, leave the Dwarf person feeling incredibly isolated, upset and wondering how the heck to get the support for the way society reacts and treats our disability. It silences conversations that need to be had, and coping mechanisms and strategies to adopt that would enable the person to be able to become more resilient. As a community group, our difficulties have yet to be recognised by the mainstream as a disability (yet alone acknowledged) and that the issues we face go far beyond how tall we stand.
Which brings me onto my next point, in this case, I was wary of making the organisation aware of the situation after being stung badly when doing so with another public sector organisation. Only receiving support once the proverbial had hit the fan. Dismissal of experience is more likely to be the first response, no matter where we go to seek to support.
When just getting on with it isn’t enough
So what do we do, as a community when getting on with it isn’t enough? When you’re bone-tired of fending off crap behaviour, the pointing the stares, the smirks?
We, more than most, know that the world won’t change overnight. That we chose to ignore this sort of behaviour more often than not because we know, all too well, how exhausting it is to be the one educating those who should know better, in each and every one of these types of encounters.
In all honesty, I don’t know the answer.
Partly, I think it’s acknowledging for ourselves that this behaviour is crap – the initial and the responses of others to such incidents. That it’s not us. That it is society that needs to start taking responsibility for how Dwarf people are treated, as much as how we choose to react to such behaviour.
It’s acknowledging to ourselves how tiring and weary-making life at times is. Giving ourselves space to work through those emotions of anxiety and stress made by others. Not to beat ourselves up with the proverbial stick that if only we could get people to understand. Figuring out our own ways to cope.
I’ve been wondering lately, that as a society we need to make a start around developing the conversations that enable victims to become survivors. For people, to become empowered by their experiences, not the sum of them. For the organisations to be willing to listen, act and work together when someone with Dwarfism approaches them to talk about specific issues.
I often feel society places too much responsibility on those who face the most. There’s only so many exhibitions that can be created and diversity initiatives launched to challenge prejudice and ignorance before a person begins to look around and wonder what progress can truly be made.
Personally, I would say that, if you find yourself in the space where you are actively avoiding situations, then don’t beat yourself up. Those of us with Dwarfism all do it to some degree. It’s about managing negative attention – letting yourself only focus on it, process it for a period of time and then turn your focus on to the good stuff in your life. Family, friends, work, hobbies. Things that distract from that aspect of our lives which we ask for no part in, yet a drawn into by idiocy others.
Take comfort in knowing that there many of us experiencing the same. Reach out to organisations like Little People UK, Dwarf Sports UK and RGA who understand. Don’t be afraid of reaching out to mental health services, though make sure you ask for support that understands disability. Find people who really get what you’re going through and realise how liberating it is that is is not always your responsibility to educate those that don’t.