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151 8 Activists and Organizers, Part 1 Lee Kitchens (continued) “It’s pretty tough to do it all by yourself.” Little People of America was founded in the mid-twentieth century by activists who were weary of being marginalized by mainstream American society purely on the basis of their physical appearance. LPA, along with the National Association of the Deaf, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the National Federation of the Blind, ranks as one of America’s oldest disability rights organizations in existence today. Little People of America started in 1957. Billy Barty [the founder] was the most prominent short-statured actor [in America]; he’d been in show business for years with Spike Jones, and the Harmonicats. His parents were in vaudeville; he grew up in show business. Apparently he had been to a show in Reno, and one night after the show, he and some other performers got together and got to talking, and one of the guys said to Billy that he ought to form a club. Another guy that was there owned a hotel, so he offered Billy free rooms for a get-together. Billy gathered up twenty people that he had met and knew, most in show business, and they had a meeting. They got some media coverage, some signs, “Midgets of America.” . . . That was the word they used then. They had a lot of pictures of people standing on chairs and stepladders at the gambling tables. Not the kind of thing we would do today, but those people were used to being exploited. Those twenty-one people spent the next three years as they traveled 152 chapter 8 getting the names and addresses of every little person they ever heard of or knew of or whatnot. Billy and another lady, who acted as kind of Billy’s secretary, put together a mailing list and started contacting all of these people. . . . A bit of history—there had been two previous attempts to organize a little people’s group that had failed. Both of those groups had been organized by average-sized people, show business promoters, not organized for the benefit of little people, but for the benefit of the promoters. [And so] Billy, who had a big hand in writing the first set of bylaws, excluded average-sized people. They couldn’t be members. They had no role in the organization. That did two things: it kept average-sized people from getting involved for whatever reason, either for their own interest or as do-gooders; and it forced little people to stand up for themselves. That attitude prevailed for a number of years until the people in LPA grew up, so to speak, and finally recognized that these average-sized parents that brought in their dwarf kids had something to offer to the organization. We gradually, through bylaw amendments, loosened the barriers to allow other people to be involved. Now we have chapter presidents or district directors that may be parents of dwarf children or spouses or whatever. But it took quite a while to build up this infrastructure of competent little people to run the organization, so that an average-sized person coming in would not be a threat. I think it was the right thing to do at the time, so little people could learn how to operate in that kind of an environment. Back in the early days, in a lot of cases, little people were socially immature or deprived, because a little person would not likely be invited to become a member of a Lion’s Club, or a Kiwanis Club, or whatever. So they were denied the experience of working in a group and learning the leadership skills that you needed to be able to manage a large volunteer group. About 1959, Billy was featured on the Ralph Edwards TV program This Is Your Life. I did not see the program, but one of the guys I went to school with that had also gone to work for Texas Instruments came and told me about it. So I wrote Ralph Edwards a letter asking about Billy and that got forwarded to Billy, but in my letter I did not make it clear that I was shortstatured , so I got a very guarded response back. Anyway, we communicated back and forth, and Billy was planning another get-together in 1960 in November in Las Vegas. Because of Billy’s contacts and whatnot, he had activists and organizers, part 1 153...


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