In the current political environment, there is a lot of talk about symbols and history. The recent decision to remove the Confederate Flag from government buildings in South Carolina sparked a nationwide conversation on how symbols of our past may no longer be relevant or appropriate today. This month, the debate expanded into the small town of Freeburg, Illinois: “Home of the midgets”.
In the 1930’s, Freeburg’s high school basketball team was comprised of players shorter than the average basketballer, and they beat teams that dominated them in height. Thus, the local media of the time dubbed them the “mighty midgets” and the name stuck. It is a story that people from Freeburg hold as a source of pride.
Little People of America (LPA), an advocacy and support organization for people with dwarfism, recently asked that the school change their mascot. The term “midget” has been considered offensive and demeaning for decades, as it was coined during the era of traveling circuses and “freak shows” when people of short stature were put on display for public amusement. Fortunately, as society and culture have progressed, so has our language and perception of people with dwarfism. They are now doctors, lawyers, parents, siblings, and respected members of their communities. Yet, when symbols like the “mighty midget” persist, these derogatory terms continue to promote the idea that people with physical differences are “less than” and should be mocked or excluded.
Last month, LPA launched an online petition urging Freeburg’s school board to change their mascot. The petition gained over 4,500 signatures in just 2 weeks from people across the U.S (notably, that is 200 more than the total population of Freeburg). While this may be a small town in the middle of the country, no place is isolated now in the expanding world of social media. Freeburg’s “mighty midget” caricature and their rival high school’s “stomp the midgets” t-shirts, expand beyond the Illinois borders and are harmful to those with dwarfism everywhere. LPA delivered the petition on July 7th to the school’s superintendent, Andrew Lehman, with the hope that the school board would review the signatures and vote to make a change.
By the time the school board was scheduled to vote on this issue last week, news of the petition had spread and 500 people from Freeburg showed up to urge the school board to keep the mascot the same. They felt that their underdog story in history was so important that the continued use of this term was justified. In the end, the school board voted to keep the mascot.
The bottom line was that LPA and its supporters were not challenging the school’s history – they were giving the school board and the community an opportunity to make history. Freeburg lost a valuable chance to teach their children about inclusion, progress, and civic duty. They had an option to hear the voices of those negatively affected by an offensive symbol and to make a positive change, but they instead turned it down because change felt too hard.
LPA feels that this debate is not over, and if the arc of history bends towards justice, then change for this high school is inevitable. The schools mission is “to enable all students to become productive and responsible citizens by providing them opportunities to maximize their intellectual, physical, and social capabilities in a safe, caring, learning environment”. Changing the mascot is paramount to standing behind this statement.
More information about LPA and the history of the term “midget” can be found on the organization’s website at www.lpaonline.org.
Eileen Norman lives in San Francisco and serves on the Board of Directors for Little People of America. She is a long-time advocate for disability and human rights.National Politics