‘The attitudinal barriers society burdens us with are as difficult if not more so than the physical ones’:
Advocating for persons of short stature in South Africa
Melanie Lubbe is Chairperson of the organization Equal Citizens of Short Stature – Southern Africa, which she founded in 2020 with the objectives of raising awareness and advocating for people with all conditions resulting in short stature, or dwarfism.
Equal Citizens of Short Stature provides support in terms of referrals to genetic testing and counselling, assistive devices and vehicle modifications, employment and skills development, reasonable accommodation, capacity building, universal access and design, and is active in influencing legislation and fundraising. Currently, the organization focuses its activities in South Africa, but has some members in Namibia and hopes to expand to include Southern Africa.
We asked Melanie which explanations for disability she has encountered and she told us that in many African cultures, persons of short stature are very often labelled as a mythical creature ‘the Tokoloshe’, an evil little man who can do magic and comes at night to kill people. Sometimes babies born with dwarfism are killed at birth. This has improved in recent times but still happens.
Melanie also explained that in Western cultures there is a sick fetish about having sex with a lady of short stature and she has received reports of ladies being stalked.
The challenges facing persons of short stature are exacerbated by film and advertising agencies, which insist on casting them in roles for clowns, elves, and fairies, and by corporate companies who recruit them as ‘party favours’ to entertain guests. As Melanie explains, ‘This is hugely degrading, but because people of short stature struggle to find gainful employment, they accept this as a way of surviving financially’.
Melanie shared one particular story with us that demonstrates the impact of these beliefs – the true story of Herman, a man of tremendous intelligence and skill, who was employed by a prominent accounting and taxation firm. He is a highly qualified, hardworking and loyal employee, but not on the same pay grade as his colleagues. He is regarded as Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) to the company. One day, the circus came to town and in a board meeting, the CEO, in front of everyone, saidto Herman that maybe he should run over to where they are setting up the circus and apply – he is sure he will be welcomed and given a nice outfit as well. Being devastated, angry and utterly disgusted, Herman kept his cool, and he replied: ‘Why on earth would I want to do that? I am an accountant.’ As the story illustrates, the attitudinal barriers that society burdens us with are as difficult if not more so than the physical ones.
While this incident occurred before Equal Citizens of Short Stature was established, Melanie said that today, she would confront the CEO and Board and demand a public apology. ‘I would bring this to the SA Human Rights Commission. If only to raise awareness of this type of abuse’. She remarked, ‘This is exactly the type of article mainstream media should carry. Government should pressure corporate companies to not tolerate this type of discrimination and abuse, especially the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities’.
To read more about the work of Equal Citizens of Short Stature, please visit the organization’s Facebook page.