A few years ago I was a member of a public speaking club. I had joined to learn to speak more clearly and project my voice when addressing large groups. One evening I was helping out at a 'funny speech contest' in London, when a contestant approached me and began to talk about what he had prepared.
It was a story about queuing to board a bus. As the speaker waited in line, the child in front of him appeared to be having difficulty negotiating the step from the curb to the vehicle’s floor. Upon seeing this struggle, he decided to lift them, uninvited, from behind, up onto the bus. Only then did they realise that this child was, in fact, a dwarf.
I seriously doubt this happened, but that is not the point. In seeking me out – the only person with dwarfism in attendance on the night, and perhaps one of the few dwarfs he’d ever met – the man was effectively requesting my permission to publicly tell a speech for which dwarfism was to be the basis of the joke. Remember, this was a ‘funny’ speech contest.
I said to him that he clearly felt uncomfortable making the speech in my presence and that if he felt awkward saying to some people something he wouldn’t say in front of others; he should show some integrity and not say it at all. More importantly, I told him that I don’t represent dwarfs in general – he appeared not to have considered this – and, on this basis, I could not give him the reassurance he sought. But if he wished to give his speech, that was his decision. He pulled out of the competition.
This story is not unique. A similar one was recently shared on social media. In it, two men told a woman with dwarfism that they planned to ‘hire’ a dwarf for a friend’s stag party (yes, sadly, such things still happen). They sought her approval that this would be an acceptable thing to do; she gave them no such permission.
Occasions like these are, in my experience, relatively rare. And though they are disappointing they are also, in some way, reassuring. In both instances, the would-be storyteller and party planners knew that they were uncomfortable with what they wanted to do, which is why they sought the approval of others. They were aware, to some extent, that what they’d done, or proposed to do, was not acceptable. This is a good first step to challenging and eradicating prejudice.
I take issue with such stereotypes, not because I find them ‘offensive’ or because I’m a free-speech policeman, but because I believe that - in a society in which most people have relatively few encounters with people with restricted growth - such stereotypes diminish our power to shape our own lives.
Peter Dinklage, Emmy-award winning star of HBO’s marvellous ‘Game of Thrones’ show, rightly recognised that when he said: “Dwarfs are still the butt of jokes. It’s one of the last bastions of acceptable prejudice”.
We won’t eradicate all prejudice, We can’t. But you don’t get my permission for it.
Eugene Grant is a trustee of the Restricted Growth Association