Thursday, October 28, 2010

No, Ken Jennings, you should not use that word

Famed Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings has blogged about an issue very important to me, the use of the word "midget". Here's what he says:

But here’s my problem: sometimes I call my kids “midgets.” I need a ruling from the Little People of America: is “midget” inherently offensive? Should I avoid it in all situations, the way disability advocates want the word “retard” avoided–not just for the mentally challenged, but for everyone, including the kid picking his nose in study hall or the guy that forgets to buy the beer you asked for? Or is it more like “Oriental” (still okay for rugs, just not people) or “colored” (okay for pencils, not people).

Here's the email I just sent him.

Hi Ken,

You should not use the word at all. You should not use it with your children. The most obvious reason is not merely because it is considered a slur but also because you infantilize people with dwarfism. And you are teaching your kids that adults with dwarfism are the same as children because they are small.

You bring up the words "oriental" and "colored" and say that it seems to be okay to use them to describe, respectively, rugs and pencils. But "oriental" and "colored" were already existing words used to describe a variety of things, beyond people, "Midget" is a word built to literally dehumanize people with a genetic difference. "Midget" has its roots in 19th century freak shows where, in order to make a buck, people with dwarfism would be displayed as an exotic and inhuman other species. Society was conditioned to view them that way as a result.

Freak shows are no longer a part of our culture but the sense of otherness related to people with dwarfism is with us still. I'd point you to the life of Paul Miller of Mercer Island, Washington. He was born with achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism and was rejected by over 40 law firms after graduating from Harvard Law School. One of them said they didn't want to hire him because it would turn their firm into a freak show.

Miller went on to be a law professor, a tireless advocate for people with genetic differences, and he advised Presidents Clinton and Obama. Miller recently died after a battle with cancer. Here's the New York Times obituary. Here is President Obama's reaction to Miller's death.

My daughter Kate was born with dwarfism in 2002. She gets stared at, pointed at, people take her picture, people laugh at her. And while I recognize that it's natural to look longer at something that is unusual, there is a societal prejudice against people with dwarfism. They are seen as a curiosity, they are seen as something "other", and it all gets back to that word "midget". Kate, fortunately, is brave, determined, smart as a whip, and doesn't pay much attention to the people who don't understand her. That's good because, just as she needs to work harder than average people to reach a drinking fountain or a cash register, she will need to work harder to get a job and be taken seriously in life.

So Ken, I ask you to make it easier for her. Be part of the solution. Treat people as people regardless of their genetic condition or their height, just as you would treat them as people regardless of their ethnicity. Make things better, Ken Jennings, and don't use that awful word.

John Moe

PS. By the way, "dwarf" is a perfectly acceptable term. I don't know a little person in the world who has a problem with it. Of course it works even better if you simply call them by their names.