Cork woman speaks out to mark Dwarfism Awareness Month: "I was physically and mentally bullied..."

To mark International Dwarfism Awareness Day we talk to Carole Rice from Gurranabraher
Cork woman speaks out to mark Dwarfism Awareness Month: "I was physically and mentally bullied..."
Carol Rice from Gurranabraher, who is speaking out to mark Dwarfism Awareness Month

“I DON’T know what it is with the Little People community that makes society so fascinated with us,” says Gurranabraher native, Carol Rice, who is raising awareness about her community for Dwarfism Awareness Month this October.

Carol, who is in her thirties and is 4ft 3inches in height, says there is a lot of ignorance around when it comes to dwarfism, also known as short stature.

“People take photographs of us without our permission. It’s just degrading. What drives me insane is a certain ethnic group who think that by rubbing me, they’ll have luck. I’ve had vans following me around which is very intimidating. Sometimes, these people bang against me. I get so annoyed.

“I had an altercation in a shop and I said to the woman involved that ‘as fast as you can rub me, thinking you’ll have luck, I can click my fingers and a put a spell on you’. Her face dropped and things calmed down a bit.”

Carol says there are 300 different types of dwarfism, the most common being the genetic disorder, achondroplasia. It occurs in four to fifteen out of 100,000 live births. She has the more rare pseudo-achondroplasia, which doesn’t manifest itself in a child until they are between two and four years of age.

“I only found out what my exact condition is six years ago. We’re all put in the same category.”

An American mother of a girl with pseudo-achondroplasia was able to tell Carol that she had that condition. Carol met the mother online. She told Carol that judging from her photograph, she has pseudo-achondroplasia. It’s characterised by smaller hands than those with achondroplasia, and also normal facial features.

When Carol googled it, she was able to identify with all the milestones of the condition. It accounted for “the missing link” and explained why Carol was born at a normal weight and was predicted to grow to 5ft 6inches.

As well as having pseudo-achondroplasia, Carol was born with osteoarthritis and had to have her hips replaced in 2014. But it took years before this added condition was spotted with her suffering “from constant aches.” She was slow to walk and at school, was never able to keep up.

“I had a lot of years pushing myself beyond the limit. I wonder now if that affected my joints. You can imagine the pressure on my joints when my legs were hanging down all day under the school desk. Now, occupational therapists will insist on support for the legs. But I didn’t have an occupational therapist growing up.”

Having seen various doctors over the years, Carol says it was 12 years ago when she first attended the surgeon, Professor James Harty. He has made a big difference to her life.

“It took him seven years to win me over. The minute he met me, he said my hips needed to be done. I said ‘no’. I thought I was too young. He said I’d eventually fall in the door to him. That’s what happened.

“I held out until my hips started to go. I knew I wouldn’t have a normal hip replacement as my bones are tiny. So it was a challenge for James Harty. And by god, he is amazing.”

Carol Rice with her book, Resting on Wings of Hope.
Carol Rice with her book, Resting on Wings of Hope.

Physical ailments and problems are all part of the Little People’s lot. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they suffer bullying and discrimination.

“My mum had to fight to get me into mainstream education. There was a lot of exclusion, growing up. I was physically and mentally bullied. It was gruelling. In my teenage years, friends would leave me because I couldn’t keep up with them. Those years were very lonely. I lacked confidence.

“Even though I’m tougher now, it annoys me that there’s a lot of talk about mental health awareness. But people don’t understand that by targeting me every day, it affects my mental health. It goes on and on and it comes from kids to adults.”

Carol felt unaccepted by society. But she is a resourceful person who decided to put pen to paper.

“It was only when I wrote my first book that I opened up and documented the bullying. The book, which is self-published, is called Resting on Wings of Hope. It takes you on a journey through my life.

“I’m working on a second book, a novel, called In Pursuit of a Pain Free Life. It will be dedicated to Professor James Harty.”

While Carol found school tough-going, she recalls a couple of teachers who spotted her potential. Her home economics teacher, Ann Hester, at St Als, nominated her for the European Child of Achievement.

“We flew to Paris to collect the award. It was for children facing adversity. Ann Hester thought I was amazing. I used to climb up on stools to cook in home economics class and I’d put a biscuit tin under the sewing machine so I could sew.”

Carol did the Leaving Certificate and wanted to work in the media. But her sister signed her up for a secretarial course at the Cork College of Commerce.

“That was the making of me. The philosophy of the teachers there towards me was phenomenal. They felt that if you were failing, they weren’t getting through to you.”

As a result of the teachers’ attitude, Carol decided she too wanted to teach. She transferred to UCC and took a degree in commerce.

“The first six months were tough. I felt very lonely. It was sink or swim.

“I was about to quit when I met two amazing ladies at UCC that I’m still friends with.”

After her degree, Carol returned to the Cork College of Commerce as part of her teacher training course. She got a job there teaching management and marketing as well as teaching a course on special needs.

The job, which Carol loved, lasted for four years. But then the recession kicked in and she was let go. Undeterred, she returned to UCC to do a Masters in sociology, focusing on basketball and its role in promoting social inclusion among children living in disadvantaged areas of Ireland. She got to know the Blue Demons club based in the parochial hall in Churchfield.

“The basketball players told me that if you believe in yourself, anything is possible. I owe them a lot.

“I expected them to bully me when I first walked into the hall, because that’s what I’m used to. Instead, they formed a human shield around me and became like brothers to me.”

While Carol has good friends, including a guy with the same condition as her who introduced her to the Little People Convention, she says she doesn’t have friends in Cork that share her condition.

“But I find social media great. The Americans are very open. If I have a worry, I can message them.”

Friendly with fashionista Sinead Burke from Navan, the first person from the Little People community to be on the cover of Vogue recently (selected by guest editor, Meghan Markle), Carol, however, questions the fashion industry.

“I watched London Fashion Week and I wonder why the models have to be six feet tall. The average woman is five feet, six inches.”

Carol is as interested in fashion as any other woman. As a woman of short stature, she says she has to be “crafty.”

“Oasis is one of my favourite shops because they do jumpers with three-quarter length sleeves. They’re full sleeves on me. My sister is amazing at altering clothes. She does all my dresses.”

Carol is very interested in the music industry and has worked in management for the likes of Jimmy Crowley, Finnegan’s Wake, The Ferrymen, the Fureys and Davey Arthur and Dublin City Ramblers.

“I’m good friends with Sharon Shannon and I met a lot of the musicians through her.”

Now learning the piano so that she can get the melodies down to go with the lyrics she writes, Carol is clearly creative and very versatile. She will be getting a knee replacement soon.

“It’s even more technical than the hips. The amazing James Harty is going to take on the challenge.”

Carol is in good hands. She just wishes that society was more sensitive towards the Little People community.

International Dwarfism Awareness Day is  Friday, October 25.

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