17 July 2014

Facing my own prejudice about disability - Leisa's story. (And some Peter Dinklage and Hugh Jackman fangirling.)

Earlier this week I shared the story of facing my own prejudices. My friend Leisa, a short statured woman, wrote this piece inspired by me telling her that story. She read it out at the Emerging a Writers Festival Literary Salon in June, and I was wowed. (Leisa is pictured below, rocking a red dress.)

(Photo c/- Emerging Writers Festival.)

Leisa describes herself as a forty-something years young Australian woman with achondroplasia – the most common form of dwarfism – meaning that I do life at the height of the average seven year old.

She is the eldest of seven – no, not seven dwarfs – I was born into a family of average statured people and grew up in South Gippsland. Leisa is a mother of four adult children, a fitness fanatic who enjoys swimming and discovered running three years ago.

She blogs over at Life At My Level which chronicles her life with achondroplasia….but she says it's is also like personal therapy of some sorts. Her Facebook page is here.

Leisa is a roving reporter for Arts Access Victoria - recently interviewing Peter Dinklage and Hugh Jackman at the X-Men premiere! So amazing!

Meet Leisa.

"Recently I have become good friends with an amazing woman named Carly. Carly has a genetic condition called Ichthyosis which, in layman’s terms, means that she has red, scaly skin. This affects her appearance. She is such a dear person, strong, intelligent, kind and a wonderful self-advocate in educating others about appearance diversity. I am so pleased that we have become friends. Not long ago I learned that my new friend was once the target of some pretty hefty bullying by a group of people who, like me, had dwarfism.

Hearing Carly’s story prompted me to write my own piece about bullying – from the perspective of a bully.

I don't ever want anyone to think I was all sweetness and nice growing up.

The mindfulness that is now mine in adulthood did not always exist and sometimes, despite parental guidance and encouragement, I too engaged in the teasing and ridicule of other children who were deemed different...or who may not have been as clean as me, or those my peers saw as weird, or strange or annoying...or...worthy of being picked on just because...

Why do children do that? How do they start doing that? Why do they follow a pack mentality? Why do they engage in such behaviour even though their parents may model and encourage acceptance and love?

I don't know. I can cast my mind back and see it all happening but I cannot understand the mindset.

I remember a little girl called X who was part of a friendship circle we were in. All was well and fine until one day...we decided it wasn't. No rhyme, no reason. We decided to let her know that we hated her by writing her a note telling her she was as yucky and smelly and ugly as cow poo - complete with pictures. I remember contributing to that note by drawing the pictures with such glee! No thought to the potential consequences of such a note - just the pure enjoyment of writing such venom.

I believe the average age of the girls in our group was ten.

It was all fun and games until someone got hurt. I don't remember who delivered the terrible note...but I do remember that sweet little girls face crumple with grief and the way she sobbed and sobbed and showed the teacher.

I was mortified, ashamed, grief stricken. In my gleeful involvement I had not had the foresight to think of the consequences for this dear, sweet little girl; what it would feel like to be singled out and have your friendship group turn against you like that - with no warning! But I saw her face...and I knew...and I was ashamed.

The next morning we surrounded the girl of our own volition and told her how sorry we were. We asked forgiveness. I think there was an element of punishment avoidance behind our apology but I cannot forget how horrible I felt watching that little girl sob.

Obviously the teacher saw that there was a heartfelt resolution to the whole incident because she never got involved. I think she saw us all happily playing together and let us be.

Even though I never forgot that incident it didn't serve as enough of a lesson to stop me engaging in other forms of subtle bullying. In Year 9 at High School (why is Year 9 such a feral year?) my best friend and I made up nicknames for other students and teachers - those who were different, others with mental illnesses or disabilities or those we just didn't like and teachers with odd quirks. Blockhead, Spoon, Dude, Mr Jellylegs, Fräulein Lizardface. We never called them those names to their faces but I find myself wondering if they ever knew and sometimes I see their faces even now and wish I could turn back time and be less of a minion and more of an understanding individual.

Sometimes I fool myself into thinking that maybe the victim forgets these incidents, but logic says to me that if I, the bully, hasn’t forgotten, chances are the victim hasn’t either.

Time marches on and thankfully I left immature childhood behind. The faces of the past still flit through my mind sometimes and I remember them and send out good wishes to them in the hope that they are having a happy life. I’ve learned from incidents where I have been the target of bullying, rejection and cruelty – sometimes because of my dwarfism and sometimes for no reason at all. Life has been kind and has offered me opportunities to meet with people from the past and make amends, developing genuine friendships as a result. Adulthood and maturity is a great leveller.

Still, it saddens me to learn that sometimes even those of us with physical differences may not learn from our own experiences; that there are those who will target others with different quirks or an appearance diversity or even another disability and subject them to ridicule and bullying. I cannot understand or comprehend that mindset. I can't understand how those of us who know what it's like to be the target and recipient of bullying and ridicule can then turn around and inflict that kind of behaviour on another human being, simply because they may be different.

One of the truths that I try and remember when faced with discrimination and hurtful comments directed towards me is that I too, am capable of such darkness and in this, I try and journey forward with a clearer understanding of what it is like on both sides of the fence."



  1. Some of my biggest regret is treating others unkindly as a teen. I wouldn't say I bullied people but was very flippant with their feelings.
    I think it's great that Leisa fully admits that and sees her own emotional growth past it, it's a big deal to admit that kind of regret so publicly!

  2. Wow! I love your honesty. Raising these questions are important. As a person who was called 'weird' at school and being the last in the class to be invited to a Birthday party, I know what it feels like to be left out. I think it has strengthened me though, in a way that didn't leave me prone to peer pressure. I felt like I only needed to impress myself and that was the best benchmark, not to have to impress others who two years earlier wouldn't have cared what I thought of anyway

  3. Your story about the little girl really touched me. I remember in kindergarten a new girl started and was sat next to me. She had quite a flat nose (in retrospect she may have had facial features of a hair lip/cleft palate correction). I whispered to her that she was ugly. I still feel the deepest shame about my cruelty. Especially as I knew how it felt to be bullied- I guess I relished the opportunity to be on the other side for once.
    At least some of us learn and grow from our mistakes:)


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