By Susan Odgers, Local columnist
---- — Today, Dessa and Ryan are getting married in Traverse City.
I have the honor of officiating at their wedding.
Standing, Dessa is 3'6" tall. Ryan is a man of average height.
According to Little People of America, Inc. there are 30,000 Little People in the United States and 651,000 internationally. Eighty percent of Little People have average height parents, siblings and children. Most Little People are not taller than 4'10" and most average between 2'8" to 4'5" tall. There are more than 200 distinct types of dwarfism and/or skeletal dysplasia.
Susan: Tell me about when you met.
Dessa: I grew up down South. Ryan and I met in Athens, Georgia when I was attending college and Ryan was working. We met during a Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Service in 2005. I am used to being around people who are much taller than me, so it wasn't challenging for me that Ryan was more than 2 feet taller than me.
Ryan: I've often thought that if I hadn't had my graduate schooling at MSU, I wouldn't have asked Dessa out. My classes really led me to make changes in how I interacted with people with disabilities. I learned to let the person's personality speak to me, rather than making assumptions based on disability.
Susan: How did your families react to your relationship?
Dessa: My family was just happy I found someone that I was compatible with and for whom my disability wasn't an issue. I was raised doing pretty much everything other kids did. The first time I met Ryan's parents they had a stool in the bathroom waiting for me and apologized for their entrance stairs. Ryan and his mom have worked specifically with persons with disabilities, so disability was not a foreign concept to either of them.
Susan: What are the key misconceptions that people make about Little People (LP)?
Dessa: I think the most common (and disheartening) misconception that people have is that I'm not fully human. Talking to strangers — who often talk to me about my personal business because I have a disability — I get the sense that they think of me purely as a little person. They seem to forget that I'm also an employee, a soon-to-be wife, a less soon-to-be mom, an aspiring writer (see her blog www.Shetroit.com), a grad student and so much more. Ryan finds the misconception that we won't be able to have kids to be the most annoying. My doctors have told me I can and we are planning on it. The best thing about when people have misconceptions about you is that you can prove them wrong.
Susan: Discuss the evolution of LP as a disability group and within the larger disability movement.
Dessa: There's a debate whether being a LP is a disability or not. People are little for different reasons. I'm little because I was born without femur bones and knees. Often, it's not anything about us that makes us disabled, but the structure of the world around us where everything is too tall. Identifying as disabled or having a disability isn't something everyone does in the same way.
Susan: Is it different for LP who are men?
Dessa: I'm always surprised at what a big deal people make of height. Women have been acculturated to desire men that are bigger than them. Many traditionally male jobs require a lot of physical labor, which may be hard for LP. Tall stature is often associated with prestige and power. I submit that people like me are small and powerful just the same. EVERYONE is taller than me, except for toddlers. I feel the power imbalance more from being a woman than I do because of my height.
Susan: What physical accommodations do you need inside and out of your home?
Dessa: We have step stools everywhere in our home. I have pedal extensions on my car so I can drive. My clothes are hung on a lower bar in my closet. I use a wheelchair to grocery shop and then hang the basket and later the bags from my feet which stick out right in front of me. Don't tell my mom, but I climb up on counters a lot to reach things on the top shelf. Some of the access I need is particular to when I use my wheelchair. I buy pants and skirts where everyone else does. Two-thirds of my jeans get cut off and hemmed. My upper body is of average size and proportion. In a crowded room I worry about getting stepped on or tripped over. In loud places, I have to shout because my voice has to reach up so much farther. I think the most interesting examples of accommodation happen in my mind when I'm interacting with people.
Ryan: I love our lowered bed frame! I like that we're learning to dance. I like how we've learned to part crowds with Dessa's wheelchair and tip her chair like a wheelbarrow when we need to. I like how we switch it up when we go for walks together — sometimes we just go side by side, sometimes I pull Dessa by my hand, sometimes I push her if we've been walking for awhile. I love troubleshooting to make things easier because they usually make things easier for me, too.
Dessa and Ryan, here's to you!
Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 25 years, has used a wheelchair for 36 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle.