It was one of those typical state fair experiences. Fluorescent lights from rides flashed like a strobe light, scents of corn dogs and funnel cakes streamed up my nostrils while I tried to keep from tripping over small children who had escaped their parents’ grasp.
Somewhere between the bumper cars and tilt-a-whirl, my friends and I noticed an eye-catching display. "See the World’s Smallest Woman," the signs proclaimed, accompanied by a cartoon of a giant hand holding a tiny woman. "She’s under 48 inches tall!" the advertisement boasted. "50 cent special today!"
"Ya, right," I thought. "It’s probably ‘50 cent special’ every day, and the unfortunate woman sitting in there gets about one percent of the profits."
Curiosity got the best of a few of my friends, coaxing them to join the line of curious teenagers. I stood against a corndog stand where I was able to watch the expressions of the people passing through the freak show. They would walk in, stare at the woman for about half a second and quickly rush out. Each wore an expression of shame after having looked at the woman, like they couldn’t believe they had paid money to see someone publicly humiliate herself.
"I can’t believe I just did that," one of my friends told me afterwards. "She’s a midget, and she looked so depressed—she was just sitting on a couch while everyone walked by her."
For about 10 minutes, my friends did nothing but despair about their bad decision and about how sorry they felt for the "World’s Smallest Woman." I kept wondering if this woman had ever tried to make a real life for herself, a life that didn’t involve purposive public humiliation, a life without crowds of people paying to feast upon her anomaly in every city she visited.
Then I started thinking about the countless number of people, whether disabled, mentally handicapped or simply physically different from most other people, who have not succeeded in society. I wonder how much of that lost potential stems from a lack of self-confidence and how much failure stems from voices in society whispering that they will never make it in the world.
One of my best friends has been in a wheelchair as long as I’ve known him, a victim of cerebral palsy. I’ve never really seen the need to bring up the topic of his handicap. I just figure the best thing I can do is treat him like everyone else and make a little extra effort to be there for him. I don’t need to try to relate to him or understand him, because quite honestly, there’s no way I can really understand what he’s going through.
I wish society would hurry up and get past the "freak show" mentality—not just when it comes to physical displays like the one at the fair, but in the way we view people who may have physical abnormalities or are just different than ourselves. We need to take into account the large number of people who have succeeded not in spite of or because of their handicap, but simply because they realized they could be successes just like any other human being. I think of Jim Stovall, blind founder of the Narrative Television Network and author of The Ultimate Gift, an inspirational book that is being made into a 2007 motion picture. Although Jim has not always been blind, he has not allowed his handicap to set him back or become his pat answer excuse for not succeeding.
For people who have some kind of anomaly, know that there are people who will embrace you, seeing past your disabilities and into the heart of who you really are. For everyone else, can we realize that we all have some type of abnormality and learn to see past the physical shell of our neighbors’? As long as the exterior is not our focus, any awkwardness we feel around those who are different than us will melt away in time as we learn to embrace everyone the way Christ did.