Dwarfism Awareness Point #14)
So, I was asked if I have ever been the victim of discrimination. The short answer is yes, I have. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that. There are people who make decisions about me based on my appearance and adjust their behavior accordingly. This, I feel, is outright discrimination. Then, there is the generalized, institutionalized sort of discrimination that favors the normative body. This is akin to what people of color talk about when they talk about “white privilege” or what women talk about when they talk about “male privilege.” There is “able-bodied privilege,” too. I think that the first type of discrimination is actually easier to handle because you can deal with it on a person-to-person basis. The second kind is difficult: you have to change the way society thinks about public spaces in relation to the body.
I could talk about this for a very long time, but I’m going to talk about it only as it pertains to how people think about my intellectual capacity as a dwarf (first type of discrimination) and how this affected my decisions on the academic job market (second type). I’m going to talk about #1 now and #2 later this evening. That’s how you get two posts, and how I catch up. See, I’m smart.
Let me first talk about the outright type of discrimination. Of course, people stare and make rude comments, but I’m not going to talk about that. What I am going to talk about is the thing that bothers me the most: people who assume I’m a child or have below-average intelligence because of the size of my body. At first, my huge vocabulary was charming. That a tiny child knew so many words was a wondrous thing. How could a child who couldn’t yet walk speak in full sentences? A genius! Oh wait, she’s 18 months? Why isn’t she walking? You see, it’s hard to be both smart and disabled, but it happens a lot! Once people found out that I was talking because I was over 12 months old, they then became surprised at the fact I wasn’t walking. The fact that I had hit one milestone early (talking in complete, clear sentences before the age of 12 months) is undermined by the late milestone (walking). So it was for most of my education: my physical limitations took priority over my intellectual ability. Before the days of ADA, I used to have to take IQ tests and other such standardized mumbo jumbo in order to receive disability services from the school district. True story. Every year or two, I would be pulled from class (!) to make sure I didn’t need special education because I was physically disabled. Not once did I spontaneously loose intelligence from one year to the next. Imagine that! Not a big deal, you say. Well, it is a big deal. When you are that young, you internalize what people think about you. Why do they not think I’m smart? My response: I’ll show them! I worked hard to prove I was as smart as everyone else, if not smarter. It’s exhausting, especially when you *are* battling physical problems. I’ve built myself a tiny cult of the intellect, of over-performance. It’s hard to just do what’s acceptable (and still downright good) work because I don’t want to slip back into that, “tiny body, tiny brain” category.
The two times I can cite for sure that my physical disability was used to undermine my academic opportunities were: 1) Middle School Gifted & Talented; 2) High School International Baccalaureate. In the myriad of tests I took, it emerged that, yes, I was gifted and talented.
In Greeley, where I went to K-4th grade, no problem. I went to PEAK classes and enjoyed the challenges. But, when we moved to Denver, it was a different story in middle school. It was a battle to get me into the GT program, but this was a battle worth fighting. I was ahead in every class, but they just didn’t think I could “handle” the intensity of the work. They did manage to “let” me take GT history because the regular class was using the same book I’d had in 5th grade. This, thankfully, got me in math class with Mr. Loshbaugh, who quickly saw that I belonged in higher-level math because I would finish all the homework while he was teaching the topic of the homework. Mr. L and I had a special teacher-student relationship; he taught me to juggle and even hired me to do face painting when he did magic shows at parties. But, what he really did was put himself and his career on the line for me. I had had my most major surgery to date in 6th grade and had been out of school for more than a month. I was ahead in everything! I had nothing but time to learn while laid up in bed, and so I did. When I came back, Mr. L said I should just be put in GT full-time. He knew I had it in me, but the director of GT just didn’t think I could manage. So, what did he do? He threatened to quit. Yes, he did. He thought that if they wouldn’t let me in, then he didn’t belong at that school. And that, my friends, is how I got into GT.
Then came International Baccalaureate (IB). Now, my Denver friends who survived IB with me know that the GW IB program was one of the top in the nation, and you had to perform in some crazy percentile in a standardized test to get into the pre-IB program. Which I did. But, once again, they hesitated. What if she can’t handle it? What if it’s too taxing? It’s really tough, they said. She can handle it, my parents said. If she can’t, then we’ll handle it. It took a lot of arguing and convincing, but it worked. I finished IB and did very well. I’d say ending up with a Ph.D. in French literature is pretty much proof of my intellectual capacity. Talk about taxing!
So, my point here is that, everyone complains about standardized testing and how it doesn’t measure anything, but we use it for access to all sorts of programs. I’m not even going to go into how this isn’t fair for people with difficulties writing (like quadriplegics, CP, etc.) and taking tests, but when someone performs exceedingly well, like myself, those numbers just aren’t good enough? The body tells the real story, apparently. And if the body just doesn’t measure up… then how can the intellect? That’s the tacit story I was fed in school. ADA didn’t even get signed into law until I was all ready to start high school. People had no idea about how to go about enforcing it. My public school education was a challenge in this respect, but I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. It taught me to advocate for myself, which is good, because ADA sometimes falls short or is vague, and some companies/people just don’t pay attention to it. I also made great friends who took me for who I was. Sadly, it was the adults who had the most preconceived notions about my potential.
My middle and high school years taught me to achieve and how to fit in, to find the people who would accept me and to proudly be myself, which includes being disabled. I made great friends in college and finally went to a school that was proactive. Thanks, University of Puget Sound! They set the standard for accessibility and responsibility in my eyes. They understood the spirit of ADA and went beyond the minimum requirements, but I’m not going to talk about that right now. I’ll talk a bit more about my higher education tonight and how it got me ready for the job market.
Stay tuned for part 2!!!