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Standing Tall 

Little People Making It In A Big World

At first, attending the recent Little People of America (LPA) Christmas party in McAdenville was another of those surreal experiences reporters get used to. After a while, though, I realized that the "surreal" feeling was actually the result of my having come to the party with some preconceived notions I hadn't been aware of. While I'm not quite sure what I was expecting -- some kind of little people alternative reality, perhaps -- I found myself feeling surprised that my fellow partygoers led such "normal" lives. They go to school, have careers, pay bills, give birth, raise kids, go grocery shopping, drive cars, party on the weekends -- just like the rest of the world. My impression that they were somehow going to be different is probably a notion shared by a lot of folks -- a notion that annoys little people to no end.

Having said that, there's also no denying that some fundamental differences do exist. When you're three-foot-five, your life experiences are going to be different from someone who is six feet tall. After all, how many folks can relate to having the light switches lowered for them as kids, or their dad customizing their bike to fit their small frame? Then there are the everyday realities little people face, like driving a car, using an ATM machine, being able to reach the paper towels in a public bathroom, or more serious issues like job discrimination.

Fortunately, through the enactment of various civil rights and disability acts, and organizations (such as dwarfism.org) that sell an array of products like little people furniture, clothes and car pedal extensions, many of those issues are being addressed. Yet there is no body of law that addresses being stared or laughed at, or feeling isolated and ridiculed. One common trait among the little people I talked to is the fact that their most painful experiences come from how the rest of the world treats them. But because they're so accustomed to putting up with other people's ignorance and cruelty, most are remarkably resilient and have learned to take the looks and rude comments in stride and with a sense of humor. Moreover, most say they wouldn't change being a dwarf for anything. In fact, many consider themselves lucky.

One such person is Debra Rick. The first time I met Debra, she was peering out from behind the screen door of her Mt. Holly home, her head barely visible above the door's lower partition. Debra, 42, was born with a rare form of congenital dwarfism that doctors have yet to diagnose.

"What can I say, I'm one of a kind," she says.

Debra stands three feet five inches tall and has slight appendages for arms.

"My mother said the whole time she was pregnant with me I was just a slight tickle in her womb. When I was born, my aunt, who was a nurse, started screaming. They had never seen anything like me."

Today, Debra, a mother herself, has traveled the world, met "millionaires and celebrities," and accomplished just about all her dreams. Indeed, despite some seemingly insurmountable obstacles, she has lived a remarkable life, by anyone's standards. Because Debra was born and raised in Mt. Holly, she knew most of her classmates, and says school was relatively painless.

"The hardest part was just trying to keep up with everybody," she says.

After high school, Debra attended Belmont Abbey College, where she graduated in 1981 with a political science degree. It was after college that Debra said she first experienced real prejudice and discrimination.

"Suddenly doors were being slammed in my face," she said. "They would tell me I'd give the company a bad image, and I'd be better off staying home. Or they'd tell me the position was filled, and I'd call back a few days later and it was still open. I'd say look, I have an education, I'm well read, just give me a chance, but they didn't understand. That was a very depressing time in my life."

Finally Debra landed a teaching job at a local elementary school. "All the kids were my size, so it worked out really well," she said. "I love working with children. If you can teach a child to be open and understanding, you've made the world a better place."

Debra taught school for several years during which time she got married. In 1986 she gave birth to her son, Justin, who is average-size. She said it nearly killed her. "It took me three years to recover from the birth."

Debra has since divorced her husband, and remains very self-sufficient even as she deals with all the usual challenges of single motherhood. However, she says her biggest challenge continues to be dealing with the cluelessnes of others.

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