Stars of Documentary 'Far From the Tree' on Living with Dwarfism and Raising Average-Sized Kids

"We were both raised with high expectations that we could and should live a decent life, just like anyone else," Joe Stramondo tells PEOPLE

Photo: Alyson Aliano

On a recent muggy afternoon in San Diego, Leah Smith and her husband, Joe Stramondo, are sitting outside their San Diego apartment, watching their 6-week-old son, Silas, snooze in his stroller, while his 2-year-old sister Hazel is at preschool.

The pair, who both have a form of dwarfism, are cracking each other up as they try to explain how their height —or lack thereof—isn’t the hardship some seem to think.

“I don’t leave the house thinking, ‘How am I going to reach the milk at the grocery store?’ ” Smith tells PEOPLE. “I’ll climb the shelves if I have to. I was doing it when I was nine months pregnant!”

Adds Stramondo, “Yeah, scaling the bread aisle, trying to get those bagels down… Life is good!”

The couple’s refusal to be defined by their dwarfism is something Leah and Joe—who appear in this week’s issue of PEOPLE—picked up while growing up with average-sized parents.

“We were both raised with high expectations that we could and should live a decent life, just like anyone else,” says Stramondo, 36, an assistant professor of philosophy at San Diego State University.

Alyson Aliano

The couple, along with four other families, share that message in the new documentary, Far From the Tree, based on the award-winning 2012 book of the same name by Andrew Solomon.

The film explores how these families cope with a range of challenges—including Down syndrome, dwarfism, autism and a son who committed murder—that come with raising a child whose life is different from what their parents expected.

“There’s a real need to understand people who have what’s categorized as an illness and to look at the resilience and dynamism of parental love,” says Solomon. “It seems like a particularly urgent time for the film’s message of compassion and celebration of people who are different from the mainstream.”

At one point in the film, the couple (Leah has a Masters in public policy and Joe has a PhD in philosophy) meet with their physician to discuss Leah’s pregnancy—and Stramondo can be seen trying to lighten the mood in the office by joking about their height.

“The assumption was that we would want a child that was average height, that we wouldn’t want this for a child,” says Stramondo, who is an associate professor of philosophy at San Diego University.

Adds Smith, 37, who manages #LiveOn, a research project on suicide-preven- tion for the disabled for the Center for Disability Rights: “But why wouldn’t we? We have a damn good life. We’re happy people.”

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