Dwarfs populate folklore, from Santa’s workshop to Snow White. Yet they are rarely encountered in everyday life, although there are some 20,000 dwarfs in the U.S. alone. While their bodies are small, there need be nothing stunted about their minds or achievements, as is demonstrated by Lee Kitchens, 47, the 4’1″ past president of the Little People of America. Founded in 1957, LP A has about 2,500 members. A developmental engineer with Texas Instruments, Kitchens is one of the men credited with designing the first mass-produced transistor radio and was on the team—appropriately—that developed the best-selling miniature calculator, SR-50. Both Kitchens and his 3’11” wife, Mary, have pilot’s licenses, drive Cadillacs and live in a normal-size house in Dallas with two adopted children, son Alan, 21, and daughter Sandy, 17. Lee Kitchens talked with Barney Collier for PEOPLE about America’s little people and why they organized.
How do you define a dwarf?
The medical profession generally considers any adult under five feet a dwarf. The Little People of America established 4’10” as the limit. Most of our members are 2’6″ to 4’6″ tall.
What is the most common type of dwarf?
Some 85 different types of dwarfism have been identified, but the most easily recognized is achondroplasia. It involves shortening of the long bones, wide-spaced eyes, flat bridge of the nose, short fingers and a tendency to overweight.
Does a dwarf differ from a midget?
The type most people refer to as a midget is really a hypopituitary dwarf—we call them “hypopits.” They lack a growth hormone created by the pituitary gland. They are perfectly proportioned miniature adults who may mature physically in other respects.
Can dwarfism be corrected?
If the cause is a pituitary deficiency, it can usually be corrected by the injection of a human growth hormone called HGH. The problem is that HGH can only be derived from the pituitary glands of dead people. It takes 200 glands a year to sustain one individual’s growth. HGH is also used on burn patients, so there is a shortage.
Are the words “dwarf” and “midget” offensive?
Well, they can be fighting words if used in terms of derision or disrespect. We call ourselves “LPs,” for “little people” or “little person.”
What do you call your babies?
We call them little-littles.
Do most little people have normal-size parents?
Yes. I did. Most types of dwarfism are genetic accidents that may happen as often as once in 10,000 births. If two little people have children, three out of four of their offspring are likely to be little-littles. When only one parent is a little person, the odds are 50-50.
What is the normal-size parents’ reaction to a dwarf child?
There customarily is shock, surprise, anger, rejection, blaming it on the other partner—all of which are absurd. This is something that cannot be controlled by anyone. It just happens.
When did your parents know you were going to be small?
I suspect at birth, but it was confirmed by the Mayo Clinic when I was 16 months old. They advised my mother, “Take him home and treat him like you would any other kid.” This is the right advice, though it’s difficult to take. I think my parents did pretty well.
Were they overly protective?
No, but they warned me, “Stay out of crowds, because you might get crushed.” And I couldn’t cross the street as early as other kids, for fear I wouldn’t be seen and would get run over.
What physical problems did you have in school?
Not being able to reach the door handle or the telephone or water fountains. The stairs were too high and the hand rail out of reach. The world is designed for normal kids. Still, I managed to go to Texas Christian University and get my electrical engineering degree from Southern Methodist University.
Was driving a car an important symbol?
It was to me, and I know it was to my wife, Mary. It cut the string of total dependence on our parents in getting around and doing things. When I was 21, I had a job and had saved up enough money. My dad was afraid I’d buy a piece of junk. One day out of the clear blue sky he said, “Here, I want you to have a good car.” It was just a Ford, but to me it was like a Rolls-Royce!
How did you make the car fit your size?
My dad and a mechanic put in a false floorboard, raised the seat and cut down the steering wheel. A lot was overkill; it made the car impossible for anyone else to drive. My next car was done differently, with extensions on the gas pedal and brake, and a removable seat. Now if my big friends want to take over, I simply move those things out of the way and they can drive.
What are a little person’s emotional problems?
To learn to live with the comments people make, like, “Hey, why are you so little?” If you let them get under your skin, you can lead a miserable life.
How do you handle the situation?
You have to expect that children, who are naturally curious, are going to ask questions. A 4-year-old girl came up to Mary one day, touched her and asked, “Are you real, or are you a puppet?” The simplest thing is to answer the question factually.
What is the best way for little people to adjust?
Consultation with another little person who has been through the same thing and has come to grips with it. If you are helping them, it is almost as if you can read their minds. They may harbor a fantasy that one day, through some miracle, all of a sudden they will grow up. If you say, “I used to have that fantasy,” it’s a shock to them. It may have been one of their innermost secrets which they hadn’t shared with anyone.
What is their deepest wish?
A desire for independence. They don’t want to depend on other people for transportation or to reach things. That’s why driving a car is such a liberator. The little person says, “Hey, I’m behind the wheel like everybody else. Nobody can tell the difference.”
Do little people ever deny they’re little?
All the time. When I meet one I don’t know in the street, he may turn and run. When they see me, it’s like seeing themselves in a home movie—seeing themselves as they really are.
How do they like to see themselves?
They feel that everybody accepts them as perfectly normal—which is true to some extent. Your close friends forget your differences. But of course it’s not true that everybody looks at you that way. You drive up to a strange filling station and get out of your car, and they’re going to look. Sooner or later, the pressure gets too great, and then they come round to the Little People of America. They’ve had enough.
Enough isolation, I guess. Enough lack of information.
Besides counseling and comradeship, what services does the LPA provide?
We try to discover cases of short stature in children, some of whom are hidden in back rooms. Parents will deny that their child is different. They live in a fantasy that their child is a slow grower, that everything is going to be all right.
Have you found many such children?
I know of a Long Island lawyer who kept his two kids out of sight until they were 16. They had never been to school. In Minnesota, we found six people who had been institutionalized all their lives, but only one of the six was mentally retarded. There’s no way of telling how many people like that are hidden away. We only find out by luck, by accident or by word of mouth.
Do little people often intermarry?
Quite often small couples will latch onto each other because it looks like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A lot of these couples will make the marriage work, even though they are mismatched.
Do little people ever marry big people?
Yes. We call those “mixed marriages.” It has to be tough on the normal-size person because of the stigma society has placed on the little person.
Are many little people successful?
We probably have a disproportionate share of unemployed or underemployed people because isolation and prejudice have denied them an education. You can’t get a job until employers are willing to hire handicapped individuals. There was nothing we could do about that until recently. But now, across the board, we have a number of schoolteachers, accountants, business people. I measure anyone who has come up to normal in every respect except size as successful.