Restricted Growth (Discrimination)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:04 pm on 30 October 2003.

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Photo of Patsy Calton Patsy Calton Liberal Democrat, Cheadle 5:04, 30 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.