The origin of the term “Little People”

Disability History
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blocks spell the words "Words have power"“Look at that baby over there!”; “Wow! You’re so tiny!”; “There’s that midget over there!”; “How old are you?”; “Can you read?”; “Can you write?”; “How come you can talk?”; “Do you wear footie pajamas to bed because you’re so small?”

This is a sampling of some of the comments Little People hear regularly. The words people use have meaning and power. This article explores some of the history surrounding the terminology used to describe Little People.

The definition of a Little Person is someone who is less than 4 feet 10 inches tall, as explained on the website of Little People of America.

While not everyone who is a Little Person experiences the physical effects of their condition, others do experience complications of the spine, joints and the heart. If a person fits the definition of ‘disabled’, a Little Person could be protected under civil rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is important to know, however, that not everyone who is a Little Person defines themselves as having a disability.

The term Little Person encompasses over 200 different diagnoses, and is also known as dwarfism or skeletal dysplasia. The most common type is called Achondroplasia, which means the person has a typical-sized torso, but shorter arms and legs, and a larger head. For instance, Amy Roloff, the former wife of Matt Roloff from TLC’s Little People, Big World, has Achondroplasia. A rarer type of dwarfism is called spondyloepisphyseal dysplasia (SED), which is what Jennifer Arnold and Bill Klein of TLC’s The Little Couple have. What SED means is certain growth plates are affected and bone growth is slow. It also affects the joints, and whether the person will have bowed or knocked knees. Also, people who have SED have limbs that are more proportional to their head and body.

The terminology used to describe a person of short stature has a long and interesting history. Little Person or LP is considered the politically correct way to address someone of short stature. Some people are ok with being called a dwarf because for them it creates a sense of pride and unity, but others may not choose to self describe as a dwarf. There are other derogatory terms discussed later in this article.

Let’s take a look back at some of the roles and portrayals of Little People in history.

There have been important figures in history who were little. For instance, Ferdinando Galiani (1728-1787) was 4 feet 6 inches tall and was a member of the Enlightenment period. He “translated John Locke” and “he published the acclaimed 370-page Della moneta,” which had passages and reflections on love and money (Adelson, 50). And Antoine Godeau, who was picked on for his size when he was younger, grew up to be a poet, a clergyman, and then in 1639, a bishop in Venice (Adelson, 49).

pyramid in egyptOn the negative side, curiosity is one of the main themes throughout the history of Little People. As far back as Ancient Egypt, Little People and other people with disabilities were considered to be god-like and worshipped. For instance, dwarfs were considered to be related to Bes, “the God of home, family, and childbirth,” and Ptah, “The God of Earth’s essential elements” (Lenz, 2015). Many even had positions and jobs as high as government positions because they were thought to be related to the divine. On the surface, it may seem like a good thing that Little People were considered to be of a higher power. But this was the beginning of the stereotype that Little People are considered to be “childlike” (hence the association with Bes, the God of childbirth), and the association with mythological and fictitious characters. That is why in movies – such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the Harry Potter series – Little People are depicted as “Oompa Loompas” and Wizards. After Ancient Egypt and continuing through history, people who were of short stature began receiving lower ranking jobs, and were even subjected to experimentation during Nazi Germany, along many other people with differences or disabilities (Lenz, 2015).

In contemporary United States culture, several Little People have become TV celebrities. For example, TLC’s reality stars, Dr. Jennifer Arnold and Bill Klein, from the The Little Couple. In their recently released book, Life is Short (No Pun Intended), Jen explains, “I wasn’t unhappy being a Little Person. Being a Little Person has always and will always be normal to me” (Arnold & Klein, 1). That is the whole premise of their show – to show that despite being of short stature, Little People can live a full life just like anyone else.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was still unclear as to why Little People grew at a slower rate than most. Jen explained how her pediatricians thought she was “‘failing to thrive.’ They thought it was a nutrition issue, plain and simple…” (Arnold & Klein, 5).

Today, doctors are somewhat more aware of the different types of dwarfism. Parents of Little People are also beginning to understand the necessary accommodations some Little People need in order to be able to live an independent life.

Unfortunately, another pervasive experience for Little People is ridicule and bullying. To go back to terminology for a moment, there is one word that starts with the letter “m” that is very controversial. That word is “midget.” It is important to explore the uses of the term, and its history to fully understand why it is so problematic. The word is derogatory because it relates back to the freak show era in the 1800s, and this piece of history exemplifies ridicule and bullying. Little People used to be put on display for public amusement, ridicule, and objectification because they were different from the norm.

Back when freak shows were just becoming popular, Phineas T. Barnum, who created the Barnum and Bailey’s circus act in 1881, deemed the word midget to be “socially acceptable.” (Ebert, 2005) Midget at the time referred to Little People who were more “proportionate” in size, meaning their arms, legs, head and torso were all in proportion to one another. And then everyone else who was “not proportional” were to be called “dwarfs”, which was thought to be less desirable through the 1950s. Essentially, there are layers of discrimination occurring. There’s the first layer that Little People were discriminated against because they were physically different from those who were average height. And then there was the second layer of discrimination within the Little People community: those who were considered “midgets” versus those who were considered “dwarfs.” Those who were considered to be ‘midgets’ — or those more proportional — were treated marginally better than those who were considered dwarfs — those not as proportional. For instance, both groups performed on stage at shows, but midgets were on display to “polite society’, and were usually in a starring role. Dwarfs, on the other hand were treated as “assistants” and were mainly used backstage or specifically in the freak shows, where they were judged and ridiculed (Ebert, 2005).

The term midget is not just derogatory because of its relation to the freak show era. It has been used to describe a bar sport known as “midget tossing” or “dwarf tossing.” Midget tossing originated in Australia, and soon became popular in the US and Great Britain. The basic premise of this “sport” is that a Little Person is thrown by a “tosser” against a mattress, to see which thrower can throw a Little Person the farthest. The record distance thrown was around 30 feet in Australia (Radford, 2012).

There have been protests to try to get this “sport” banned, as happened in Florida in 1989, but now there are protests to remove the ban in order for bars to create more business (Moye, 2011). These protests have not just happened in the United States, but in other countries as well. In 1992, the Union of Small People protested and tried to discourage a world-championship for dwarf tossing being held in Germany (Radford, 2012). However, there are other protests arguing against the ban of the sport. For instance in 1992, France stopped the ban because one of the throwees, Manuel Wackenheim, felt it stripped Little People of their rights to choose their profession, especially if they were making on average $2,000 per night.

At least two problems have been identified with dwarf tossing: first, it objectifies and dehumanizes the person being tossed; and second, “the person being tossed is at high risk of back and neck injury” (Moye, 2011).

A summary of the sport and protests to ban it, can be seen in this YouTube video, titled “Dwarf Tossing.”  Also, tv celebrities Jen Arnold and Bill Klein share their opinions on midget tossing in this video clip from the talk show Anderson Live.

In the 20th Century, Billy Barty founded the organization now known as Little People of America (LPA) in 1957. This organization allowed people of short stature from around the country to meet up, collaborate, and offer support to one another. It was originally called “Midgets of America,” but was soon changed to “Midgets and Dwarfs of America” (Ebert, 2005). It wasn’t until the 1970s during the civil rights movement that one term was created to unify all people of short stature; that term was Little People.

Whether a Little Person is a student, a neonatologist, a TV star, a lawyer, a business woman or even a stay-at-home parent, they all have something in common. They deserve their human rights and for those rights to be protected. And most importantly, to be respected.

 

Primary Sources:
Arnold M.D., Jennifer & Klein, Bill. Life is Short (No Pun Intended). New York: Howard Books, 2015. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Dwarfs, Little People and the M-Word | Roger Ebert’s Journal | Roger Ebert.” All Content. Robert Ebert’s Journal, 1 May 2005. Web.

Secondary Sources:
Adelson, Betty M. “The Past.” The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity Toward Social Liberation. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Print.

Welcome to Little People of America.” Home. Web.

Dwarfism Types & Diagnoses.” Little People of America. Web.

Lenz, Lyz. “A Brief History of Dwarfism.” Pacific Standard. PSmag.com, 25 Feb. 2015. Web.

Moye, David. “Dwarf Tossing Legalization: Some Little People Support Repealing Florida Law (VIDEO).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Oct. 2011. Web.

Barnum’s Timeline.” Barnum’s Timeline. Web.

Radford, Benjamin. “Dwarf Toss Victim Gets Mention at Golden Globes: DNews.” DNews. News.discovery.com, 17 Jan. 2012. Web.

Dwarfism: Types, Causes, Treatments, and More.” WebMD. WebMD. Web. 16 July 2015.

One thought on “The origin of the term “Little People”

  1. diane diecidue says:

    Dwarf tossing, makes my skin crawl. Though some say it’s my choice it is demeaning “job”. Now with so many positive role models for little people they know there are manny more opertunities avable.

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