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by Dan Kennedy
Rodale Books, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 11th 2006

Little People

Dan and Barbara Kennedy have two children, Tim and his little sister Becky. At her birth in 1992, Becky was eight pounds, two ounces and nineteen and a half inches long. Yet her head was unusually large, and she was soon diagnosed with achondroplasia, a common form of dwarfism. This was a surprise to the Kennedys since the rest of their family is of about average size. Little People is about Dan Kennedy's experiences as a father and more generally about the history of thought and debates about dwarfism in the last hundred years or so.

Kennedy's book is reminiscent of Michael Berube's powerful memoir and reflection on his experiences as a father of a child with Down syndrome, Life As We Know It (reviewed in Metapsychology July 2002). He mixes together his personal story with an examination of the social, ethical and philosophical issues raised by dwarfism. This combination works well because it deepens the significance of his own experience, and makes the abstract issues more accessible. Kennedy is a journalist working in Boston, and he has done a great deal of investigation for his book. He has interviewed activists and academics, gone to many meetings of little people, and he has also thought hard about the ideas. His writing is literate and compelling, and the book serves as an excellent introduction to controversies about dwarfism. It also examines many related issues in disability studies, and so could be used in undergraduate and graduate courses on disability, at least as an introductory text. There are over 15 pages of notes at the end of the book, giving references for some of the works referred to in the main text, which can be helpful for those looking to follow up in researching the topics. Unfortunately, there is no index.

A central question for dwarfism is whether it should count as a disability. Some forms of dwarfism are caused by genetic abnormalities or differences, and some dwarfs are especially prone to a variety of health problems. Becky's life was seriously threatened as a baby when she contracted RSV, respiratory syncytial virus, which made it very difficult for her to breathe. She had an extended stay in hospital and eventually recovered. Her bodily difference had made her especially vulnerable to RSV, and so she became seriously ill when other children it would have been nothing more than a bad cold. She will probably grow to about four feet high, and her arms are short in proportion to her body, which reduces her ability to reach all parts of her body. As she gets older, she will probably lose flexibility, making the problem worse. Yet many little people do not want to claim a disability identity, and think that merely being short is not a problem in itself. It is only a problem because our society builds buildings in ways that make it more difficult for little people to get around. Yet politically it may be helpful to little people to ally themselves with other people with disabilities, who have been quite successful in their fight to end discrimination based on physical or mental difference when minimal accommodation would allow full participation in society by people with impairments. Kennedy interviews many people with a stake in these debates, and he sets out the different sides very clearly. He himself does not take a strong stand on the issues, but he tends to favor practical concerns over ideology.

For example, Kennedy examines the debates over limb lengthening surgery for dwarves. In this painful and sometimes dangerous procedure, it can be possible to add about 12 inches to children's height as they grow. So they can go from dwarf to simply being a fairly short person. Yet many people in the dwarf community are dead set against this operation, and view it as entirely unnecessary. Furthermore, they think it is a sign of a lack of acceptance of dwarfism. Kennedy meets with one of the main surgeons who performs this surgery, and finds him quite reasonable, presenting him as a very compassionate doctor. On the other side of the argument, he emphasizes that often when dwarves want the limb lengthening procedures, it is when they are teenagers, a time of life when people are least happy with their bodily appearance. Many people who might have gone to great lengths to change their physical appearance when adolescents grow up to be glad that they did not make any permanent changes. He concludes that he does not think he wants this surgery for his own daughter, although he is more favorably disposed to the arm-lengthening surgery because this is both less dangerous and has more everyday benefits for people with achondroplasia.

Similarly, Kennedy's discussion of genetic testing for conditions associated with dwarfism is thoughtful and careful. He explains the general concerns that go with parents wanting to have perfect normal children and the lack of tolerance of difference that may go with this. He does not go into all the many views that have been set out by participants in this debate, but he presents a good balance of ideas.

Little People is both informative and interesting. It is a valuable addition to the literature of disability studies. While Kennedy himself is not a dwarf, and he does not say much about his daughter's view of life, he has been very involved with Little People of America and he has made and effort to represent a variety of experiences and opinions concerning dwarfism, so the book will help readers better understand the experience of being a dwarf.

 

Link: Dan Kennedy Website

 

2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.