Disability, Identity, Role Models, and Philosophy

The excellent article copied below was penned by none other than disabled philosopher Joe Stramondo. Among other things, I was very happy to read about the important role that Paul Steven Miller played in the development of Joe’s identity as disabled. I am fortunate to have had a couple of memorable conversations with Paul at a disability and law conference that Martha Fineman organized at Emory some time ago. For me, these conversations were indeed a highlight of the conference.

The original version of the Stramondo article appeared at Rooted in Rights here.


Tyrion Lannister, Dwarf Identity, and the Struggle for Agency


Dr. Joseph Stramondo*

Paul Steven Miller was an icon in the dwarf community. After graduating with two Ivy League degrees and fashioning a career in public service as a Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and then a Special Assistant to President Obama, Miller held an endowed chair at the University of Washington School of Law.  Arguably, he did more than anyone to show generations of Little People what was possible for our lives, despite millennia of stigma and hostility.  With his more tangible contributions of crafting the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), he brought scores of disabled people, including Little People, along with him as he found his success.  So, what does this pillar of society have in common with a lustful, wine-soaked character from Game of Thrones, the popular fantasy television show that just ended on HBO?  Both Paul Miller and Tyrion Lannister gave Little People greater agency by giving us a better chance to tell our own stories about who we are.

In his book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon makes an important distinction between vertical identities that are typically passed down between generations and horizontal identities that are not shared between parents and children, but learned from a peer group. Vertical identities usually include ethnicity or language, whereas horizontal can be things like sexual orientation or, for my purposes, dwarfism.

Growing up as a little person with average sized parents, it was essential I had Paul Miller and other role models or mentors to teach me how to be a dwarf.  Often, this education from my dwarf elders was quite mundane, like advice about the best step stool to bring in your carry-on when traveling by air and staying in a hotel. Other times, however, it was a matter of being shown that people like me, who experience pervasive structural discrimination and personal ridicule because of the bodies we inhabit, can still become someone with a worthwhile future.

However, a person’s identity is not only determined by the boundaries of their imagination and ambition. One of philosopher Hilde Lindemann’s key insights in her book, Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair, is that identities are relational: who we are is always determined by both who we believe ourselves to be and who others allow us to be. Further, who we can be holds sway over what we can do.

For instance, when Paul Miller first graduated from Harvard Law, near the top of his class but prior to the protections of the ADA, he was rejected by 45 firms who initially saw him as an attractive candidate, but lost interest when they realized he was a dwarf.  These suspicions were confirmed when a hiring committee told him outright, “we’re not going to hire you because we think our clients would think we are running a freak circus if they saw you.”  Miller was denied the chance to do the kind of work he had trained for because his dwarf identity, as it was constructed by others, precluded it.

Lindemann might explain that this is because the master narrative of dwarfism did not include high powered attorneys and vice versa.  Master narratives, according to Lindemann, are the “stock plots and character types that we borrow from the familiar stories embodying our culture’s socially shared understandings.”  While our individual identities consist of the many threads of our experiences and roles, woven into a uniquely complex tapestry, master narratives serve as anchor points that are essential when we try to understand our own identity and that of others.  They help everything else we know about ourselves and others make sense as we move through society. So, it is all the more damaging to a person’s ability to control their own life when the master narratives that guide their identity formation unjustly constrain who they can be and what they can do, as we saw in Paul Miller’s case at the beginning of his career.

Luckily, while master narratives are powerful social forces, they are not written in stone. With some work and creativity, they can be replaced by what Lindeman calls “counterstories.” These are deliberately crafted, alternative narratives that, when they are adopted as part of a shared cultural understanding of an identity, open up a person’s possibilities rather than stifle them.  To some degree, Miller’s life served up a counterstory that resisted the oppressive master narratives around dwarfism.  Yet, while his story is compelling, outside of certain corners of academia and the disability rights movement, he remains obscure.

For a counterstory to take full effect, it needs to find purchase as a widespread cultural phenomenon. Thankfully, for this, George R.R. Martin has given the dwarf community the gift of Tyrion Lannister.  Many people will go their entire lives without meeting a Little Person and as such, fictional portrayals are all they will ever have when trying to make sense of the dwarf identity. One can imagine how difficult it is to formulate a positive identity as a moral equal of your fellow citizen when Rumpelstiltskin, Gimli, and Mini-Me are people’s points of reference for what they can expect from those like you.

Tyrion came crashing down into my life in the late nineties, when a friend at my summer job lent me his copy of A Game of Thrones. For most people, I imagine protagonist Ned Stark’s death was the most shocking bit of the book. For me, an angsty Little Person teen who escaped into the pages of fantasy novels as he tried to figure out who he was, encountering a “real dwarf” in one of these books hit me like a bolt from the blue. In a sense, Tyrion gave my teenage self permission to fully acknowledge and fully feel the public ridicule that is part of the everyday life of a dwarf; and then he gave me some of the tools I would need to move past it.

However, as Lindemann tells us, identities are relational. So, it wasn’t until Tyrion broke into the mainstream as a central figure in HBO’s megahit TV show two decades later that his potential as a counterstory really started to be realized. He still played the role of comic relief, but the laughs were evoked from his sharp wit and not at the expense of his stature. Following the tropes of other dwarf characters, he was a somewhat depraved, perpetually drunk lecher, but, unlike his predecessors, these behaviors were explained as an unfortunate response to the countless hostilities one experiences as they move through the world in a dwarf body. Not only did Tyrion turn these stereotypes on their head, but, he ends up being the greatest antihero in Westeros.

Of course, what makes Tyrion an antihero rather than your garden variety hero was not his dwarfism, but the many deep imperfections in his character.  After all, he murders his lover and his father in the span of a single evening and then ships off to enable a character that turns out to be something of a fascist.  At the end of the day, though, it’s his moral courage and humility, combined with his sharp, articulate mind, that save the Seven Kingdoms from mass genocide by dragon fire.  His flaws ran deep, but so did his compassion and integrity.

Still, as far as subversive counterstories go, Tyrion seems to be the low hanging fruit.  After all, he is a dwarf, but he is also a wealthy, white, straight, cis man.  To do the work that needs to be done most, we need more counterstories about dwarfs and we need them to do more than help the future Paul Millers of the world get jobs at elite law firms.

There may have been earlier fully developed, sympathetic dwarf characters in literature, film, or television, but none of them have been taken up as part of our shared cultural imagination like Tyrion Lannister.  Perhaps, his existence in the world has given pause to some of those who might have otherwise snickered, jeered, or tried to snap a camera phone picture when a dwarf walks by.


*Dr. Joseph Stramondo is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at San Diego State University, where he specializes in bioethics and philosophy of disability. In the past, he has also done disability activist work with organizations including: Little People of America, ADAPT, the Connecticut State Independent Living Council, and Disability Rights Texas. When he isn’t working, you can usually find him spending time with his partner, two young children, and family dog “Odysseus.”

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