Restricted Growth (Discrimination)

– in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 30th October 2003.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

Photo of Patsy Calton Patsy Calton Liberal Democrat, Cheadle 5:04 pm, 30th October 2003

First, I place on record my thanks to Mr. Speaker for his personal selection of this subject for debate. When I was first approached about discrimination against people of restricted growth, the people concerned felt that no one cared, but that they were nevertheless determined to do what they could to raise the profile of the issue. It will be a real boost to know that the Speaker of the House of Commons has taken an interest in their cause.

My constituent Mrs. Penny Dean, of the Restricted Growth Association, contacted me about a year ago after disgraceful remarks on "The Johnny Vaughn Show" on 21 October 2002 about the "game"—as it was described—of dwarf-spotting. Penny asked me for my support in attempting to fight for recognition of the discrimination that faces people of restricted growth. The Restricted Growth Association is a self-help organisation concerned with alleviating the social and medical consequences of restricted growth. It promotes the interests of people of restricted growth and their families and provides invaluable support to prospective and new parents. It is in contact by e-mail, via newsletters and at regular events around the country, offering support on and practical solutions to everyday life problems.

It is estimated that approximately 30,000 people in this country have restricted growth conditions. There are more than 100 medical conditions that cause short stature. The most common is achondroplasia, which causes severe shortening of the limbs and affects one in 25,000 births per year—about 25 to 30 babies. Approximately 75 per cent. of individuals with a restricted growth condition are born to parents within the average range of heights. The height of people with restricted growth is within the range of 3 ft 2 in to 4 ft 6 in. None of the conditions is common, but they all have a similar effect on the day-to-day lives of people who are affected.

The main problem faced by people of restricted growth is the attitudes and stereotypes that persist in our society today. I have come across those attitudes even in this House. When I asked for the support of parliamentarians to sign early-day motion 165, some people regarded it as a joke. Happily, today, in time for this debate, we have reached the 100-signature milestone. I should like to remind the House of the wording of that EDM:

"That this House notes that approximately one in 25,000 births to parents of average heights is of a baby of restricted growth; that such babies are sometimes rejected by their parents because of the stigma associated with the disability; that children and adults of restricted growth and their families are subjected to a constant . . . barrage of thoughtless discrimination, comment and misplaced jokes via the media, the wider public and some professionals; notes the excellent work of the Restricted Growth Association and the Dwarf Athletics Association UK; and calls on those with influence in the media, in education and in the medical profession to present positive images of those with restricted growth, and to challenge the stereotypes associated with the conditions."

The early-day motion talks of thoughtless discrimination. It refers to the media, to education and to the medical profession. Had I known last November what I know now, I would have included the workplace in my references; I am pleased that we have a Minister from the Department for Work And Pensions with us to respond to the debate.

I shall deal first with the media. In February this year, the programme "RI:SE" showed restricted growth people behind a counter while viewing newspapers. In March, on "Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned", a question was allowed about dwarf wrestling. Again in March, the programme "Hardware" thought it funny to show a restricted growth person stuck in a launderette dryer. In August this year, in a world athletics programme, a commentator read out an e-mail on dwarf-throwing. He said, "Here is someone from Cornwall asking when the dwarf-throwing event is on. Ha, ha, ha."

I have been told of comments from members of the medical profession when a child is born with restricted growth. Doubtless, they were meant kindly but are thoughtless and damaging. I have heard, "At least he will never be short of a job." A new parent who asked, "What is achondroplasia?" was told, "It means he will be a classic circus dwarf." Those comments from television and the medical profession are outrageous, but symptomatic of a society that clings to outdated, stereotypical images of people who are different, and they must be challenged.

Some schools refuse to take children with restricted growth because they feel that they cannot cope with them. The Restricted Growth Association provides a helpline. A crucial part of its work is helping parents, schools, educational psychologists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists to support children of restricted growth in schools. Ensuring that children have the necessary provision in schools is vital to their development. The association advises schools on supporting children, preventing bullying and dealing with cruel comments from other children and their parents. Ignorance causes so much of such behaviour. The Restricted Growth Association works to educate the general public and promote understanding, thereby fulfilling its main constitutional aims of alleviating the problems and distress that a restricted growth condition can cause and helping its members to live full lives. I cannot speak highly enough of the work of the Restricted Growth Association and the Dwarf Athletics Association UK. Their work challenges the assumptions that most of us make every day.

I received a moving letter from April Barrett, a member of the Restricted Growth Association. It speaks more eloquently that I can about her position. She talks of the ridicule and stereotyping that people of restricted growth have suffered from time immemorial. She says:

"Surely society needs to know that every human brain thinks, dreams and aspires to the same goals and that education and enlightenment are the way forward. We are not seen in society as disabled but still as the circus clown, freak, and as a result do not receive the 'Ah' factor—but the giggle one. Every single day I or my children step out we are 'on show' and open to public abuse in one way or another."

When one family applied for disability living allowance, they were asked in front of their restricted growth daughter, "Well what about the little clowns in the circus? They rough and tumble, fall down and then get up again." That was in spite of the known medical conditions associated with achondroplasia. They include: spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back and neck; lordosis, inward curvature of the spine and lower back; kyphosis, the outward curvature of the spine in the middle to upper back; hydrocephalus, which causes increased pressure in fluid surrounding the brain; ear, nose and throat problems owing to narrowing of the nasal passages; problems with balance owing to ear, nose and throat problems; hyperextension of knee joints; loose ligaments in knees, hips and ankles, leading to dislocation of joints; inability to straighten arms; and bowed legs through the misalignment of hips, knees and ankles. There are many other restricted growth conditions with other complications such as breathing difficulties, arthritis and joint problems.A young woman who works for the BBC told me that some people judge one's mental ability by one's height. However, she saw a positive aspect in her profession because her small stature meant that people remembered her better.

Work could make such an important contribution to the integration of small people and to their self-esteem. April's daughter was frightened out of a good job as a hotel receptionist by individuals who were straightforwardly abusive. When she went on to new deal, she was not treated as an adult but as a child, despite all her qualifications. She now works in personnel at ACAS.

Steve Scott was not allowed to work in a branch of a bank in 1978 or at the counter because he did not present the image that the company wanted. I very much hope that it has changed its attitude now. He tells me that interviews became very personal at times, and that he was even asked about his sex life. After being head-hunted for a human resources management post, he was rejected at the final interview. He was told that the human resources director "didn't want a dwarf". Sandra Scott, Steve's wife, worked for six months as a temporary classroom assistant. She was told that no posts were to be made permanent, only to find that two new members of staff had been recruited after she had left.

Two weeks ago, I attended the annual convention of the Restricted Growth Association in Northampton. It was a joyful occasion, at which families and friends could meet and relax. However, I met two mothers of average height, one with a beautiful three-year-old, and one with a three-month-old baby, both with restricted growth. All parents worry about their children's future. No one who has witnessed the apprehension, pain and tears of the parents of children born with this condition could ever laugh at the jokes again.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 does not fully cover people with certain conditions. Dwarfism, certain mental health conditions and some aspects of autistic spectrum disorder are among them. The Minister might be able to name others. I hope that she will be able to hold out some hope for people not currently covered by the various Acts relating to disability, sex or racial discrimination.

We need more positive images of people with restricted growth. I commend the recent "One Life" programme which showed the journey made by a young woman with restricted growth from Jersey who was meeting other people of restricted growth for the first time at the Dwarf Athletic Association's UK championships in Birmingham. I urge the media and sports bodies to recognise the fine athletes that we have in the restricted growth community. Three of our restricted growth adults are judged to be at Paralympic level, and have high hopes of competing in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. I am told that programmes such as "The Big Breakfast" will cover the Dwarf Athletic Association's championships only so that they can poke fun at them and ridicule the whole concept of the games and what they are trying to achieve. My constituent Penny Dean says:

"To see the faces of our athletes when they come first, second or third, perhaps for the first time in their lives, is something to be proud of. To witness that sense of achievement and the lifting of their self-esteem when they are up on the podium receiving their medals is something to warm the coldest of hearts."

Next week I hope to present a 5,000-name petition to Mr. Speaker from the Restricted Growth Association and friends. On 12 November, we shall be holding a mass lobby of MPs, and I very much hope that Members of Parliament, Ministers and perhaps even Mr. Speaker himself will find the time to meet those people who have had a really tough time, and who have not had sufficient recognition of what they can achieve in life.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:18 pm, 30th October 2003

I congratulate Mrs. Calton on securing this opportunity to raise this important issue and for bringing to the attention of the House—and, thereby, of the wider public—the problems faced by people of restricted growth. I do not have my diary for 12 November with me, but so long as I am around the House, I would be happy to meet a delegation during the day, at a time convenient for the hon. Lady and for delegation, so that they can tell me at first hand about their experiences.

I want to make it clear that the Government are committed to building a fair and inclusive society, in which no group of people is marginalised, harassed, discriminated against or made fun of because of stereotypical attitudes about them, in which everyone has the right to be treated with respect and dignity, and in which the individuality of people is valued. We must value people for their qualities and talents, and not hold outdated and stupid views about what they must be because of how they look, or because of a condition that they may or may not have.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, negative attitudes persist. I was particularly appalled by some of her examples of insensitive and inappropriate language. Insulting references to people of restricted growth, such as suggestions that they can only work in the entertainment business—in circus rings, for instance—have no place in 21st century society. Those who use such language ought to realise that it is offensive, and stop using it.

I hope I am right in believing—although I sometimes fear I am not—that such instances are not common, but we must challenge them when they rear their heads. Such inappropriate behaviour and attitudes can only cause hurt and humiliation to those at whom they are aimed. As I have said, people of restricted growth have the right to be recognised for their talents, for the skills they can bring to the workplace and every other aspect of life, and for their value as customers, consumers and users of services.

The Government are committed to tackling such stereotypical attitudes, and to ensuring that people of restricted growth are portrayed more positively. One of the most effective ways of changing attitudes is altering the misconceptions that still abound. There is a clear role for the media, which need to stop using stereotypical images and stop poking fun. Television and film companies must make more use of actors of restricted growth in positive and substantial roles, rather than featuring them as something quirky or amusing. Advertisers should show actors of restricted growth in the mainstream, going about everyday business.

I wonder whether the hon. Lady has been following our "images of disability" initiative. The aim is to use some of the Government's power in the marketplace—we do some advertising occasionally—to encourage good practice of that kind. A recent advertisement by the Department for Work and Pensions features an actor of restricted growth visibly going about everyday life, in the background, like anyone whom one might see in the street. We should celebrate the achievements of people of restricted growth, and provide an example for those who wish to portray them in a stereotypical way.

The hon. Lady mentioned the media. She gave examples of programmes that were insensitive about people of restricted growth. Today I found a recent example on the internet. I shall read what I found, to demonstrate that I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making.

Under the headline "Man Versus Beast pulled at 11th hour", the report reads as follows.

"A UK version of a US reality show which featured 44 dwarves competing in a tug-of-war with an elephant has been pulled at the last minute."

The report says that the show was "branded sick and degrading". Good, one might think—it was branded sick and degrading for making fun of people of restricted growth—but no, it was branded sick and degrading by animal rights activists who objected to the elephant being used in such a fashion.

That, as well as the hon. Lady's examples, illustrates that we have some way to go in terms of the media. We can only work together to try and bring about improvements. As I have said, we in Government are trying to do that through our own use of advertising, and also by emphasising that more positive portrayals of disabled people in general need to be more widespread. That should apply not just to the Government, but to other advertisers. I am pleased to say that we are receiving a good response from the advertising industry, and ridding it of some of its stereotypical views and fears about using images of disabled people.

The hon. Lady referred to the insensitive remarks made in the medical profession. It is important that that profession—and all professions, because this is not just about doctors—think a little more carefully about the way in which they express themselves when they are trying, for example, to explain to new parents what a particular condition that will lead to short stature in their child means. I am sure that there are many examples of good practice, but I hope that where such insensitive language is used, the matter is taken up with the GP practice or hospital, perhaps through the patient advice and liaison service, or through an actual complaint. Only by challenging such behaviour can it truly be changed.

The hon. Lady said that some schools refuse to take on children of restricted growth, and that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 applies to some people of restricted growth but not others. That is indeed the situation. If a person of restricted growth meets the definition of disability in the 1995 Act, they are covered. Many would meet that definition, but some others may not. That is clearly an issue, but where they do meet that definition, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 might be used to tackle the attitude of some schools.

The law can sometimes be used to make improvements, but like the hon. Lady, I believe that education and enlightenment are the way forward. I hope that she will therefore welcome the fact that in the next year or so, the Government will embark on further awareness-raising advertising and work, to try to ensure that disabled people in general—this also applies to some people of restricted growth—are not dealt with in the old, stereotypical way, but valued as people. Some general work is going on in government, advertising and the media to change public attitudes, and to ease some of the problems that the hon. Lady has highlighted in respect of people of restricted growth, but which also apply to disabled people in general.

In the light of some of the hon. Lady's comments, it is hard to accept that attitudes are improving, but my own view is that, in general, they are. We still come across bad examples such as the ones that she referred to and that I have just related, but in general people are starting to realise that one should judge a person not on the basis of a stereotype, but on their character and talents. Indeed, tremendous progress has been made in the past few years in that regard.

I commend the hon. Lady's constituent and all those who are active in the Restricted Growth Association. They are doing a magnificent job in terms of self-advocacy and improving the image of people of restricted growth in society. I also commend the work of the Dwarf Athletic Association. The power of sport to improve self-esteem is often not recognised sufficiently. The work of organisations such as the DAA in improving the self-worth and self-esteem—and the fitness, it must be said—of its members is tremendous and no doubt unsung. It is not so unsung any more, however, because the hon. Lady has highlighted it on the Floor of the House, and I congratulate her on that.

The hon. Lady mentioned public abuse and said that people of restricted growth tend to be laughed at, joked about and compared to circus freaks or clowns. We see examples of disabled people in general—the point doubtless also applies to people of restricted growth—being picked on in what amounts to a criminal way because of their disability or condition, or because they are perceived in a stereotypical manner by those who are picking on them. Some protection is offered against harassment in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and we are considering outlawing harassment fully, in civil terms, through the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. As she knows, legislation is being drafted in that regard, but she may also like to know that the Government have tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would place a statutory duty on sentencers to increase sentences for offences aggravated by hostility towards the victim because of his or her disability. Once that becomes law, it will be of great assistance in the most extreme cases.

The hon. Lady may like to note that the definition of disability in regard to that offence will be

"any physical or mental impairment", which may apply more widely to people of restricted growth than the definition in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That will help to deal with serious abuse that results in criminal charges and it also sends a strong signal that, as a society, we do not want to tolerate such abusive behaviour. At one end of the scale, such behaviour amounts to actual attack. At the lesser end, one could say, it amounts to the sort of ridicule and jokes that, as the hon. Lady showed, are routinely applied to people of restricted growth. If the House can send a strong signal that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable, it can only help to eradicate it.

Finally, I congratulate the hon. Lady again on raising an issue that is not often discussed. We recognise that it is important and we believe that progress is being made in improving attitudes. In November, we will welcome the lobby to which she referred. I hope to see her, her constituents and people from the Restricted Growth Association at some stage during that day to hear more about their experiences.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Six o'clock.