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Dignity vs Earning a living

16 October 2023

Itumeleng Maake: Outlining daily struggles she faces as a person of short stature

By Melanie Lubbe

The debate on whether persons of short stature (Dwarfs) should be used in movies/adverts or at events as mascots, has been going on for decades.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), (preamble h, Art. 8, 15, 16, 17 &18) clearly stipulates the obligation of member countries of the UN to protect persons with disabilities from exploitation, violence and abuse which includes degrading treatment.

Spain’s parliament recently banned “comic” bullfighting events which feature persons of short stature dressed in costumes. Disability rights groups welcomed this as ending a form of mockery, but not all the performers agree. The Director General of Disability Rights in Spain, Mr Jesús Martín Blanco, a person of short stature himself, made the ban a priority. In a 2021 interview, Blanco said the government was “absolutely rejecting this culture that ridicules human beings for their disabilities”. He shared his own experiences of how he used to hide in dread as a child because he was ridiculed and made fun of.

Not so long ago, in the 1990s, a town in France banned “dwarf tossing” events where persons of short stature were thrown in the air. A series of legal cases followed, and one performer, Manuel Wackenheim, took it to a meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee.

Wackenheim argued that the events did not violate human dignity, and it was discriminatory to ban them. For him, human dignity consisted of having a job, which he longer had given the events had stopped. The UN committee found in favour of France’s right to make such a ban to protect human dignity.

On the one hand these events are perceived as degrading and socially damaging. On the other hand, performers defend their right to perform and to continue work. A right which they say the same law guarantees. The debate continues, in the new Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie in
which a character traditionally played by actors of short stature is now played by Hugh Grant. The same divided opinions are shared for the new Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs film.

Dr Erin Pritchard, a senior lecturer at the Liverpool Hope University, asks the entertainment industry to reconsider how dwarfism is represented. She points to how films have contributed to how dwarfism is portrayed within the entertainment industry.

Derogatory roles include Leprechauns, Elves, Oompa Loompas, Snow White’s dwarfs and in South African context, other mythical creatures like the Tokoloshe.

Dr Pritchard says that “People with dwarfism are not novelties or figures of fun. Yet their place in entertainment has been culturally constructed as if they are. Actors with dwarfism need to step out of their comfort zone and push for more roles that break away from those purely reliant on height.”

The award-winning actor Peter Dinklage is part of a growing number of actors with dwarfism doing just that. He has made a point of refusing to take stereotypical roles commonly reserved for persons of short stature and is highly respected and acclaimed for his acting and not his physique.

Entertainment agencies, both abroad and in South Africa, promotes ‘dwarf entertainment’ as an accepted and well-paying job. In some cases, children are even groomed to becoming a clown. Regrettably, as previously mentioned, this custom has gained some level of acceptance within the short statured community.

Just like in the Wackenheim example mentioned earlier, individuals may sometimes be compelled (and agree) to take on a demeaning job solely to support themselves and their families. It’s important to bear in mind that people of short stature also contribute as breadwinners, and the law safeguards their right to employment, regardless of its nature.

Madge Bester (April 1963 – March 2018) held the title of the world’s shortest woman at just 65 cm (2 ft 1.5 inches) tall. She received an invitation to visit China, believing it to be an opportunity for raising awareness. However, to her dismay, she was put on display, and onlookers lifted her dress to confirm her humanity, checking if she had feet and was indeed a real woman.

As if this isn’t hair-raising enough, the Kingdom of the Little People is a theme park near Kunming, China that features comic performances by persons of short stature. Only people under 50 years of age and under 1.30m (51 inches) are allowed to stay and work there. Supporters of the park claim that it provides employment to people who would otherwise be unable to find work, but it has been criticized for treating dwarfism as a humorous condition.

Another issue of concern is the blatant exploitation of individuals with short stature for financial profit, masquerading as awareness-raising events through the hosting of “Dwarf festivals.”

These gatherings assume the guise of entertainment events featuring stalls selling a variety of items and charges an entrance fee. They are extensively promoted and receive television coverage. However, individuals of short stature who attend these events must bear all their own expenses. Traveling from across South Africa, and even from Namibia, comes at a significant cost, including accommodation.

Unfortunately, no information about dwarfism is disseminated at these events, and posing for photos
with the public is a common occurrence. This exploitation does not provide any tangible benefits to persons of short stature and fails to support any advocacy for their rights.

Melanie Lubbe, founder, and President of the organisation Equal Citizens of Short Stature – SA believes that the willingness of certain individuals of short stature to participate in degrading activities should never take precedence over the overall will and welfare of the entire group. She is passionate about educating persons with disabilities about their rights. This is an ongoing task, as well as continuing to put pressure on the Government to protect and support marginalised groups.


ECOSS – SA warmly invites you to join us in October to raise awareness, debunk misconceptions about dwarfism, foster inclusion, and unite in solidarity with us to champion our human rights as EQUAL CITIZENS in both South Africa and the broader global community.

There are roughly 400 various medical and genetic conditions that can lead to individuals having short stature. Regrettably, in South Africa, most individuals with short stature remain undiagnosed. Early diagnosis and proper treatment are crucial for optimal development of children born with dwarfism. This essential step is not only necessary for the well-being of our members but also for data collection, research and building referral networks for geneticists, counselors, and orthopedic surgeons who specialize in our unique bone structures.

As a 100% self-representative organisation, we stand together to irradicate terminology like: midget, piekie, the Tokoloshe, cripple, deformed, handicapped, challenged, lame, wheelchair-bound and victim. The preferred terms are person of short stature or little person. Although dwarf is accepted by some persons of short stature, it is used in a medical context.

Mmmm … just call us by our names!

Individuals of short stature face a unique challenge as we have been historically exploited as circus performers, entertainment props, mascots, and even considered as curiosities. Shockingly, this exploitation has become somewhat normalized within the short-statured community as a means of livelihood. Transforming this perception through empowerment, educating people about their human rights, and advocating at local, regional, national, and global levels is a substantial undertaking we are
deeply committed to. Short-statured individuals are blatantly being exploited for financial profit, even under the guise of ‘raising awareness.’

Unemployment statistics and being judged on our small frame and not merit, exacerbate our efforts to secure a decent livelihood. Consequently, our organisation will champion the motto “abilities outweigh disabilities” to give voice to our cause.

We invite you to share a day in the life of a person of short stature by watching the video below:

How can you help?
• Educate yourself and your family about types of dwarfism, terminology and general do’s and don’ts when engaging with a person of short stature.
• Get involved in awareness raising activities in your community. Invite persons of short stature to share their lived experiences at your school/church/workplace.
• Include persons of short stature when you have employment opportunities available.
• Join efforts to lobby for the establishment of a Disability Act in South Africa.
• Wear a GREEN T-shirt or a GREEN RIBBON on the 25th of October to show your support.
• Consider donating to our organisation which is a registered NPO and PBO (we will happily issue an 18A tax certificate)


Please visit the official Government information portal for Coronavirus by clicking HERE

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