Hey Clay

Letter No. 3: It’s Not A Small World After All

Hey, Clay!

I have young kids who I am trying to raise to be compassionate and friendly to people they cross paths with, no matter their nationality or physicality. 

When our oldest daughter was still alive and we would take her places in her wheelchair, I was always happy to answer people’s questions about her, the device she used to communicate, and her ability to understand. 

Lately, I’ve begun to see that, among adults asking questions is NOT welcomed. In fact, people often say things like “it isn’t my job to educate you.” 

We are a white middle class American family — nothing we can do about that basic fact. I embrace my responsibility as a parent to help them learn about the world and appreciate diversity instead of fearing and resisting it. But I am beginning to wonder if I am guiding my children wrong. If they were to meet you, for example, would you be ok answering questions about your height? Is there a better way for us to find common ground and begin to relate to people who are different from us? 

Perplexed Parent in Ohio

Hey, Perplexed.

Please accept my heartfelt condolences on your oldest daughter’s passing. It’s a pain that I can not even begin to imagine. I pray you are able to feel God’s love and assurance that you will indeed be reunited in Heaven. [big hug]

I stand a towering forty-eight inches tall and have accepted the notion with certainty that my height draws attention pretty much everywhere I go. That’s not a self-aggrandizing statement, it’s a fact. And that attention manifests itself in the form of nonverbal (glances, stares, nods, knowing smiles) and verbal acknowledgements (hellos, hi theres, and the occasional obvious statements like, man, you’re short).

A few years ago, I performed along with nine other short-statured actors of various ages and ethnicities in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. I found the experience of working amidst such a diverse group of people with whom I shared so many of the same challenges exhilarating, but at times equally as exasperating.

As you would expect, if one short-statured person on the scene turned a head or two, ten Little People of various ethnicities brought people out of the shops and onto the streets in droves. They reacted as if dolls from Disney’s “It’s a Small World” had come to life and were parading down Columbus Avenue.

Okay. Maybe New Yorkers didn’t flock onto the sidewalks in “droves” per se, but a dozen people engaging someone in our group within a two-block walk is worthy of note.

And this happened on the Upper West Side in New York City, a metropolis where nothing fazes it denizens. Try to imagine what would’ve happened in a less cosmopolitan city.

Maybe my gender or my “don’t-even-think-about-saying-a-word-to-me-about-my-height” expression inhibited people from approaching me, but the women in our group were more apt to answer the general public’s questions when approached.

Garden variety, white, middle class Americans aren’t subject to the same level of scrutiny as the differently-able, minorities, or those of us with visually distinguishing characteristics. We don’t get a day or two off to set those things aside and regroup. We wake up with our physicalities and wear them throughout the day, whether we feel like it or not. We go to bed with them, and sleep with them through the night. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Some days I manage my challenges (and all that comes with them) with ease and aplomb, and any interaction about my dwarfism is no biggie. Other days … well, not so much.

Perplexed, you asked if I would be okay answering your kids questions about my height? There’s two factors at play here.

No. 1:  As someone who has long decried, “it’s not my responsibility to educate people,” I can honestly say, yes I’d talk with your kids (or anyone for that matter), depending on their approach. I’m much more likely to invest a little time and energy in a conversation with people if they approach me in a friendly and non-intrusive manner. For example, if I was wearing a dashiki and a kid came to me saying, “…excuse me, but that’s a cool shirt,” that would increase the likelihood of an educational conversation about dashikis than if they said, “…why are you wearing that weird shirt?”

No. 2:  The other factor in whether or not I’ll speak with someone about my height (and I hate to admit this) is my mood. I’m a pretty even-keeled guy, but still I have days when I simply don’t want to speak with anyone … about anything, least of all my height. Everyone has those days when they just want to be left alone. This is where reading a person’s body language comes into play in determining whether it’s good idea to speak to someone or not. Do they seem friendly or open to conversation? Or do they appear withdrawn? We use those same skills when approaching any stranger.

Having a visually distinguishing trait does not make anyone an object lesson. And curiosity doesn’t trump anyone’s humanity or right to privacy. Just because someone’s challenge is out there for all the world to see, that doesn’t mean it’s something they necessarily want to discuss on demand.

It all comes down to balancing a child’s (and some adults’) curiosity with respecting another person’s right to privacy. In this moment as the impromptu representative for all people with disabilities (humor intended), thank you for instilling compassion and friendliness instead of fear in your kids when they encounter people who look different than they do. The world needs many more people with those traits.

Wishing you continued success in bending those twigs for desired tree growth,

If you have a situation that you’re currently dealing with that you’d like me to address, send an email (with a clever pen name instead of your real name) to me at heyclay@clayrivers.com, and tell me all about it. I’ll read through the submissions, pick one, and on Thursdays I’ll post the chosen letter along with my response here on my blog, my Facebook author page, and my Twitter account. Rest assured, I will not publish email addresses. Ever.

And if you enjoyed this post, be sociable and share it with others.

2 thoughts on “Letter No. 3: It’s Not A Small World After All”

  1. Lydia Winkeller says:

    Erik makes a good point, and is fair in making the distinction that adopting children, especially from another country, was a choice, and he probably suspected there would be education to be done. I have friends with an adopted daughter from China – they are not Chinese, so it’s clear she is adopted. She also has cerebral palsy so is in a wheelchair, which didn’t manifest itself till after the adoption. When my daughters were in Kindergarten with this little girl the parents sent home a letter explaining their child’s disability, and what her limitations were and were not. This girl probably has more friends than anyone because she is friendly and outgoing. But the parents paved the way for her by answering questions preemptively – when the parents are out without their daughter, no one thinks to stare or question (which doesn’t happen with Clay for example). I don’t know what it will be like when this girl is older and on her own. But I know that when she comes to our house and I am not sure how to do something – her wheelchair doesn’t fit in our narrow halls – so I have to carry her to the bathroom and such, I just ask matter of factly, like it’s no big deal, what she needs me to do, and what she can do herself. And she explains.

    My son has a friend who is 6’8″ – and he gets many stares too. He gets the “do you play basketball” (yes) and “how’s the weather up there?” things. Because I am tall for a woman, I love hugging him because I rarely get to hug men taller than I am (my husband is a hair shorter). So my comment is always “I love hugging you because I get to reach up and stand on my tip toes!”. (On the other hand, I love hugging Clay too because he is such a warm wonderful person!) So I think that if you find something positive to say about someone who is different – like Clay’s example of the dashiki – that is a good place to start.

    On the other hand, these examples I am giving are of people I know – I certainly wouldn’t go hug Steph Curry because he’s tall (although on the other hand, he is very cute so I might!). 😉

    My daughters met Clay when they were maybe 9 or 10 (was it that long ago?) and before they met him I told them he was a little person, so he would be shorter than they are. They treated him like anyone else they’d meet, and they may have asked me questions later. I find when we come across someone we DON’T know with a difference, my girls have learned not to stare, but to ask me later. If I don’t know the answer, we’ll look it up. and if it’s something we can’t begin to figure out, we talk about how people are different, some different colors, some different abilities, some different heights, some different sexual preferences, and I am happy to say that I seem to have raised four very accepting children (well two are adults now).

  2. Erik Deckers says:

    Interesting idea. I’ve heard (but not directed at me) “it’s not my responsibility to educate people.” However, I’ve also been told I need to “educate myself.”

    The best way to educate myself? Ask questions of people who actually know or have experienced the thing I want to know about.

    As an adoptive father of three children from other countries — Bolivia and Haiti — I see it as my responsibility to educate other people about adoption. I see myself as a representative and cheerleader for that kind of family, and I figure I have to answer questions if I want other people to consider this.

    However, I also know that’s different for qualities we didn’t choose — height, size, skin color — so my thinking doesn’t apply there.

    Still, I like asking questions and will continue to seek knowledge that way whenever possible.

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