Saturday the 9th November and a special day for a bunch of really special people: The Cape Town chapter of the Little People’s Association came to my house where we launched a new book in the Highlighters series published by Shuter and Shooter. Martinique Petersen was the child that was highlighted in this book but it could have been any of the other 5 children/teenagers who also appear in the book and attended the launch with their parents. I learnt so much at the launch from the parents who spoke freely to me and Sue, our photo-journalist, after all the speeches were done, the children had gone off to chat on their own and we were tucking into the eats:
People often reach out to children with dwarfism and pet their hair or touch them on their head which is at a convenient height for adults to make contact. Think twice! If you are over 9 and nearly a teenager, the last thing you want is to be touched in this way. People with achondroplasia (dwarfism) are not petting animals. Remember to treat people according to their age and not their height.
People compensate by being over-friendly to the children/teenagers so that when they are out with their normal-height siblings only they are singled out and their siblings are ignored. This can be as a result of people wanting to show that they are “OK” with this very visible condition that gets them to make a fuss in public. But once again see it from the little person’s point of view. Little people can sense that they are being singled out and it causes embarrassment rather than pride or pleasure at being the focus of interest.
Many of the children/teenagers are about to start high school next year. Entering a new environment can be a daunting experience when you look different. The new high school pupils have to brace themselves for the staring, giggling, teasing and other hurtful behaviours from a bunch of new people. What is needed is explanation and education to ease their way into the new environment. There is no doubt that once people get to know them with their unique personalities, they will gain acceptance and make friends. Still, the early days can be rough. All the parents present were insistent that this book, which they believe to be the first and only book for children about achondroplasia produced in South Africa, be placed in all schools to help create a welcoming environment for their children and others like them.
Finally, the mothers’ amazing stories which I will remember forever. They spoke openly about their experiences when they were expecting their special children. Some were aware of the fact that they were carrying a child with this condition. For others it was a surprise.
One mother told us of a horrific story of being told by her doctor when she was 6 and a half months pregnant that she was carrying an ‘ogre’ or ‘creature’. She cried non-stop for the rest of the pregnancy. When her son was born, she was over the moon. “He was absolutely perfect,” she told us. “All 10 fingers and all 10 toes.”
Another mother related a story that was as funny as it was touching. Her own mother, and the grandmother of her son, has never really understood the condition. She told her daughter that she prays constantly that he will grow taller and meanwhile his cousin and her other other grandson is shooting up like a string bean. “I think I’ve got their names mixed up when I pray,” she told her daughter.