Why you should care

If you think it’s wrong to use the N-word or the F-word, then how is this any different?

Rico Abreu was 15 years old when his father bought him a go-kart and built a short dirt-track oval amid the Napa Valley vineyards of their northern California backyard. It was supposed to be just for fun. But as it turns out, Abreu was fast — fast enough to race with pros in more powerful cars, and fast enough that he recently won the prestigious Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, dirt-track racing’s answer to the Super Bowl.

All of which makes Abreu quite the standout. Even if he stands only 4 feet 4 inches tall.

The timing of his emergence is particularly poignant. Just weeks before Abreu’s big win and a move into a NASCAR regional series, which prepares drivers for the national level, Russia made a much different judgment about the capabilities of little people — as those with dwarfism prefer to be called. In December, the country adopted a law that bans those under 4 feet 11 inches from driving most trucks and commercial passenger vehicles, purportedly as a way to decrease car accidents. “That’s crazy,” says Abreu. (A spokesperson with the Russian government says the law complies with the country’s constitution and that “there are certain medical restrictions [when] operating machinery, especially that which involves other peoples’ lives. Hence, the law.”)

Add it to the list of indignities that have become almost routine for those who somehow don’t measure up, no matter what they’ve achieved, and it has some arguing that yet another vulnerable group needs advocates. Short people earn less on average than taller people, studies show, and they’re less likely to be a CEO. They’re also easy targets. Just ask Barbara Boxer, the senator from California who is 4-foot-11 and derisively called a “midget” by some, even though that word is akin to racist and homophobic slurs. (In track parlance, the term refers to a type of race car.)

But short people also seem to get the short shrift when it comes to having their rights defended. It’s perhaps telling that the international headlines and condemnation that came when Russia’s new driving law was revealed focused on provisions that some thought banned transgender people from driving as well. Although it was unclear if the law actually targeted that group, there was no shortage of outrage from LGBT advocacy groups that thought it did. And yet there was no similar outrage (or much media attention) about heightism — discrimination based on a person’s height — stemming from the provision that specifically targeted short people, which would include not only little people, but also those who happen to be particularly small and haven’t been diagnosed with dwarfism.

Rico Abreu gets into his car at New Smyrna Speedway in February.

Rico Abreu climbs into his car at New Smyrna Speedway in February 2015.

Maybe that’s not so surprising. Make a joke about race or sexual orientation and you will likely get in trouble. But it’s still open season on short people, as those who deal with it daily can attest. “I think that might be the norm that’s out there,” says Gary Arnold, president of Little People of America (LPA), an advocacy group.

It’s hard to muster the same vocal opposition as, say, African Americans can to racism or gay groups to homophobia, Arnold says, because there aren’t the same numbers or allies. He estimates there are 30,000 little people in the U.S., and perhaps 600,000 worldwide. Another challenge: There is no similar advocacy group for short people that could collectively join with the LPA and others to fight heightism.

Some of the larger figures in sports are among the smallest ever to compete on a national or international stage.

Willie Shoemaker (4-foot-11): The jockey once owned the record for victories in horse racing at 8,833.

Mary Lou Retton (4-foot-9): This gymnast captured America’s heart on the way to a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics.

Julie Krone (4-foot-10): As a jockey, she won more than 3,700 races and was the first woman to capture a Triple Crown race when she won the Belmont Stakes aboard Colonial Affair in 1993.

Scott Hamilton (5-foot-3): An Olympic gold medalist in 1984, he also secured four U.S. and world figure skating championships in a row.

Mario Andretti (5-foot-4): Having won a Formula One championship, four IndyCar titles and checkered flags in the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, Andretti is one of the greatest race car drivers of all time.

To be sure, some are starting to say enough is enough. In July, British Commons Speaker John Bercow lashed out at politicians after one member of Parliament called the 5-foot-6 man a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf” and Prime Minister David Cameron referred to him as one of the seven dwarfs. And there is some acceptance in sports and entertainment. Remember 4-foot-9 gymnast Shawn Johnson? She won a gold medal in gymnastics in 2008 and parlayed her fame into a coveted mirror-ball trophy on Dancing With the Stars. Meanwhile, 4-foot-5 Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage has won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and 3-foot-9 actor Mark Povinelli has continued to work steadily while railing against stereotypical roles for little people.

Even so, Hollywood isn’t always willing to engage on matters involving the depiction of little people. LPA says it got no response when it asked Red Granite Pictures — the producers of The Wolf of Wall Street — to cut a scene in the movie that included a dwarf-tossing contest. Though the group petitioned distributor Paramount Pictures to intervene, it was denied and Arnold says he was reassured no one would dare copy such a competition. (Red Granite Pictures referred a request for comment to Paramount, which did not respond.)

Sure enough, though, a Rhode Island bar actually advertised a “midget-tossing” event soon after the movie debuted. Its owner, Anthony Santurri, says he was besieged by angry and threatening phone calls and quickly removed the posters and changed the event to avoid offending little people. “We all know the time and length it has taken to get the N-word and the F-word to where people now realize those are unacceptable, very derogatory, hurtful terms,” Santurri says of racial and gay slurs. “The M-word — midget — now is beginning, and situations like [mine] are unfortunately the things that catapult it forward.”

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