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Dan Kennedy

Radio ‘jokes’ expose bias against dwarfism

By Dan Kennedy
August 25, 2011

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WHAT IS it about dwarfs? It has long since become unacceptable, at least in public, to belittle ethnic and religious minorities, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities. Yet dwarfs remain figures of fun, and those who demean them are rarely held to account. As the father of a teenage daughter with dwarfism, I find this puzzling and occasionally frustrating.

The latest example of this unfolded last Friday on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). Conservative host Michael Graham, along with several guests, decided it would be amusing to mock a $75,000 settlement awarded to Elsa Sallard, a woman with dwarfism who had been fired by a Starbucks in El Paso during her training period. Her alleged offense was asking that she be allowed to use a stool or a stepladder.

Starbucks executives, to their credit, took Sallard’s claims seriously. Graham did not. And one of his guests, an alleged comedian named Karl Zahn, thought it would be a real howler if he told a joke about liking dwarf waitresses because he can leave his dishes on their heads.

Or something like that. I still have not heard the exchange. Despite my repeated entreaties - and one from Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo, one of Graham’s guests - WTKK has declined to post the audio, and I am relying on the recollection of others.

Not that I don’t have a pretty good idea of what Graham said. Last May, Graham addressed the Starbucks case after it became national news. As part of an ugly four-minute diatribe, Graham complained, “The idea that I’m going to have to stand in line for an extra 20 minutes while you scooch around taking care of the customers on your little ladder or stepstool or bucket or whatever - no, I’m sorry.’’ All while claiming that he wasn’t a bigot.

I realize, of course, that anyone who criticizes offensive speech on talk radio will be sneeringly labeled as “politically correct’’ - a term used by bullies to diminish their opponents and to justify their own loathsome conduct. And I find nothing wrong when dwarf entertainers use their unusual dimensions for amusement and profit. But like your mother always told you, there’s a big difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone.

Little People of America, the country’s largest organization for dwarfs and their families, has worked to educate the public that the word “midget’’ is offensive, and has campaigned against such degrading spectacles as dwarf-tossing, which, thankfully, appears to have come and gone. Reality shows like “Little People, Big World’’ have helped bring dwarf families into the mainstream. Yet little people remain the object of stares, rude remarks, and, all too often, discrimination - including illegal job discrimination of the sort that Graham and others think is just fine.

Yesterday morning, Zahn did at least apologize on air for his so-called joke. Graham addressed the matter, too - and apologized not for anything he said, but for Zahn, whom he did not name. (The host continued to insist that Sallard was “clearly unqualified’’ and that her case was “a legitimate topic.’’) In addition, a spokeswoman for Greater Media, which owns WTKK, e-mailed a statement that said in part, “Please know we have spoken with Michael about his remarks, and made it clear this is not the type of commentary we expect on our airwaves.’’

In some sense, Graham and his ilk are insignificant. Their crude commentary is merely a symptom of something ingrained in the culture. It may be as simple as the fact that there are as few as 50,000 dwarfs in the United States, a number so low that it’s possible to live your entire life without meeting a little person. It’s easy, if you are so inclined, to make cruel fun of people with whom you have no familiarity.

What’s needed to counteract that is respect for all people. We want our daughter to be judged by who she is and what she can do - not by her appearance and by mistaken preconceptions about her abilities. I can’t imagine that anything a few talk-radio ignoramuses yuk it up over is going to hold her back. But if they take a long, honest look in the mirror, they might slowly come to realize they don’t like what they see.

Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, is the author of “Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes.’’ His website is www.dankennedy.net.