The Power of Community in the Fight Against Stigma
I was sixteen years old and looking for a job for the very first time. All of my friends were finding the ‘cool’ jobs at the coolest clothing stores and restaurants, but, while I was applying to those same places, I was never receiving an interview, much less a job offer. As a Little Person, I had often heard within the community that, due to the stereotypes people have of what it means to be short- statured, it could often be difficult to find a job. Like any community, there are stories that you hear over and over. From other Little People, I had heard stories of individuals graduating from Ivy League Colleges and Law Schools and still not being able to land a job. When pressed, employers would say things like, “We’re not trying to run some kind of circus freak show here.” But, at 16, I had no experience and no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just knew I needed a job to pay for gasoline to fuel my new found freedom and clothes for my never dying need for the latest fashion.
I finally landed a job at K-Mart and hated every moment of it. I didn’t hate it because it was not where all the cool kids were working, but for how I was treated while at work. Until then, I had never felt the cruel words and rude comments come off of someone’s tongue so smoothly. Customers had no qualms about laughing at and commenting on my body.
Years later, with several stops in between, I finished my Master’s degree and found myself on the job search again. As I began sending numerous resumes and cover letters to anyone and everyone, I thought of the stories I had heard in our community all over again. I knew that this time was really no different than the first time- employers had pre-conceived notions of what it means to be a Little Person and I was supposed to somehow convince them otherwise, all while also displaying that I had the skills and knowledge for the job. I began thinking of strategies for how to deal with this stigma and whether I should disclose that I was a Little Person before they met me or wait until we were in person. I decided it was best to do it beforehand, as I always hate the awkward interaction by an employer that had no idea they were interviewing someone with a physical difference. So I began to strategically place it in cover letters and on my resume.
Even after doing so, I was completely blown away when, in one particular interview, every time I mentioned “Little People” or “People with Disabilities,” the interviewer would cringe. I noticed her reaction within just a few minutes and decided to use other language to see if that would help. I changed “Little People” to “People of Short Stature, ” to no avail. Every time I said any of these words, I could predict, to the second, a bodily reaction on her part. However, due to my background in social justice, I had to mention these groups of people, as there was no other way to fully explain my most relevant work experience. I have a career dedicated to promoting social justice, how could I not talk about marginalized groups of people? To me, that felt like being a professor without ever having stepped into a classroom or a plumber without ever having seen a pipe. As I wrapped up the interview, all signs started pointing to the fact that they were preparing to hire me: they began to discuss their benefits package, salary and a start date. Even still, as I began to walk out, I noticed that every head in the office leaned out their door to watch me leave. Not only was diversity something that was not mentioned in this office, it had also never been seen. I felt like I was walking through K-mart all over again, but this time it wasn’t the customers that were gawking.
As I got home that evening, I, again, began thinking about the community to which I belong- a community of Little People that have been facing this same battle for years. Should I take the job and stand strong behind the decades of people that came before me and fought hard just to get an interview? Or did I walk away because I knew in my heart that it was going to be an uphill battle every day moving forward? How could I report to someone that could not even mention my stature? While being a Little Person is not the only important feature of who I am, it is definitely a part you cannot miss. As I began thinking of the LPA community again and all the stories of employment discrimination I had heard, I began to think of one story in particular: a woman, not much older than I, went in for a job interview and received a very similar response. Her reaction? As soon as it happened in the interview, she stopped the interviewer mid-sentence, thanked them for their time and told them that Little People had come too far for her to waste any more of her time in this interview. No sooner than I thought of this story, I found myself sending an email withdrawing my application for employment with this company.
After all, when you’re a member of a stigmatized community, one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself and for the community, is to allow yourself to sit/stand/wheel in solidarity with that community. While we still have not gotten past the problem of employment discrimination, we now have the power behind us to walk away.
Leah Smith is a writer, communications professional and disability advocate. Leah holds a Bachelor’s in Public Relations and a Masters in Public Administration and Policy. She has focused her career on creating access and equality for all. Leah currently resides in Philadelphia with her partner and two dogs.