Dwarfism is one of the oldest birth defects in the world. The ancient Egyptians had several dwarf gods, including Bes the protector. In 15th century European relief artworks, dwarfs can be seen playing key roles in royal households as entertainers or jewelers. But while a few dwarfs may have found places of respect, most were seen as freaks.
Today, one out of every 25,000 people is a dwarf. The national organization, Little People of America was formed to combat the persistent negative images associated with dwarfism as well as provide a support network. West Virginia recently formed its own chapter known as the Little Mountaineers. A regional convention held in Charleston welcomed the new members.
Like a scene from the Hollywood classic The Wizard of Oz, 200 dwarfs converged on Marriott Hotel in Charleston, West Virginia. They came from as far away as Toronto, Canada and the northwestern state of Washington and across the Midwest, to welcome the newest chapter of Little People of America, the Little Mountaineers.
For 20-year-old Larry McDonell II, a local dwarf who never knew anyone else like him growing up, it was very much like a fairy tale come to life.
Fun is only part of what Little People of America is all about. Well-known dwarf actor Billy Barty founded the group in 1957. Twenty dwarfs attended the first week-long event, which focused on information and support.
Today there are 5,000 members, making LPA the largest organization in the world for little people. Along with an annual national convention, the group holds regional gatherings, like the one in West Virginia, a couple of times a year.
District Director Doyle Harris says there are always plenty of workshops at the meetings to present new information on health, employment and education, but more importantly, the conventions provide an opportunity to socialize with other dwarfs.
"Even my best friends at home are average sized," he said. "There's something that they can't relate to with me that these other friends can. On my drive today, I came with two other gentlemen. The three of us have a 'three musketeers'-type brotherhood. We can relate to each other where no one else can."
Dwarfism is now the preferred term applied to more than 200 medical conditions which result in a short stature. Most dwarfs grow to an average height of 127 centimeters (4'2), however membership is open to those as tall as 137 centimeters (4'10), as well as their families and spouses.
In preparing to host the LPA convention, the Marriott made several modifications, including installing a set of steps at the check-in counter, putting stools in each room and lowering the towel racks.
Mr. Harris says average-sized people might dismiss such improvements as insignificant but his organization has worked hard to pass federal legislation making such accommodations mandatory.
"Now instead of 54 inches [137 centimeter], the mean height for phones and ATM's, elevator buttons now has to be down to 48 inches [122 centimeters]," he said. "It's still rough for some of our smaller people, but it makes it a lot better for all of us."
Besides providing information and fun, the Little People Conventions have a way of sparking romance. The get-togethers are famous for their dances, which are often the only times dwarfs get to dance with people of like size. Kathy and Tom Snyder were living in different areas of Michigan when they met at a conference and fell in love.
"If we didn't have Little People of America we probably never would have met, and it's probably the same with all the other little people that are here together," Kathy said.
The couple now has two children, five-year-old Mathew and seven-year-old Stephanie. One of their biggest reasons for attending now is to swap ideas at the LPA parent group.
"Our son is going to be average sized, but Stephanie we like to keep her involved because she's a little person," Tom Snyder said. "Having her be around other little people I think helps."
The Snyders believe it's important for their children to have other short-statured role models, as well as meet other children with dwarfism, so that they understand their family is not alone. Nearly all the families brought grade school or teenaged children with them.
"You learn different ideas as far as when they go to school and how to cope with other children that talk and want to know why they're short," said Kathy Snyder. "Just different issues, clothing issues, and then there's also doctor issues. Our children can actually get checked and measured. That's kind of a big thing, learning."
Once the workshops and meetings were over, it was time for fun. Many of the kids went for a swim, while the ladies were treated to manicures and facials and the rest of the group headed to a nearby golf course. Such outings often draw stares and whispers from average sized people. Larry McDonell, who's only 61 centimeters tall, says it normally doesn't bother him, but one particular incident sticks with him.
"Well there was one time somebody looked, 'Oh look at that', I don't want to be referred to as 'that'. 'Oh, how cute', that works for me," he said.
Doyle Harris says in cases like that, he usually goes up to the person and introduces himself so that they understand he's a human being too.
LPA's mission to educate others extends beyond their own communities. The group has helped short-statured people in England and Australia start their own organizations. Dwarfs from China, Korea and Slovenia attended the international convention in Toronto this summer. And Mr. Harris says the LPA is currently working with a group from Kosovo, to improve conditions for little people there.
"A lot of their governments help them to come so that they can help the other little people in their countries," he said. "Now of course, there aren't as many [as in America] but each year we have more and more countries represented."
Mr. Harris says Little People of America is especially interested in helping short statured people in developing countries form their own groups, because their condition is frequently misunderstood. He says in many parts of Latin America, for example, they are often still treated as outcasts, and the only employment they can find is in circuses or carnivals.
"We're just short. We've got normal mentality," he said. "We've got regular feelings, regular lives, just like everybody else."
Just like everybody else, but Doyle Harris says, with an added bonus…dwarfs are always recognized wherever they go. He hopes Little People of America will be able to use that recognition to continue to help small-statured people everywhere achieve a better quality of life.