Monday, April 23, 2012

Michigan activist works to break stereotypes about little people

From the Detroit Free Press:

Lydia Graber (pictured) pulls on a lime green T-shirt that says, "This is what a disability looks like."

She hops on a miniature electronic scooter and circles the perimeter of about 50 disability activists, who have gathered on this bright spring day on the Diag at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Graber was born with pseudoachondroplasia, a form of dwarfism characterized by disproportionately short arms and legs. She stands 3 feet, 11 inches, and needs the scooter to get around because she has joint problems. Graber, who has had about 20 surgeries, has had both hips replaced, both knees replaced and is awaiting surgery on her ankles.

The joint problems, which are common with her form of dwarfism, might be the only thing she doesn't like about being a Little Person.

A song by the Isley Brothers begins to play, and a flash mob starts to dance. "You know you make me wanna -- SHOUT! Kick my heels up and -- SHOUT! Throw my hands up and -- SHOUT!"

"This is right up my alley, dancing!" shouts Graber, 61, of Sumpter Township.

Graber hops off the scooter, forgetting the pain in her joints, and dances into the center of the crowd. Graber has always been comfortable at the center of attention. A former actress, she was an Ewok in "Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi."

"Now wait a minute!"

And the music goes silent for a beat.

"Yeah! Yeah!" Graber yells.

And everybody laughs.

This flash mob is incredibly important to Graber. She has worked on disability issues at all levels, serving on national organizations, with corporations and state government. But this is just as important to her, being in public, being seen and being heard, and celebrating her uniqueness. She wants to educate people about dwarfism. She says that is the secret to breaking stereotypes, showing everyone that people with disabilities are no different than anyone else.

When the music ends, Graber screams: "That was fun!"

The group of activists gathers for a photo. "Hold your guts in," Graber says, and everybody laughs. Graber has always been quick with a joke. She once worked in improvisational comedy in Los Angeles.

As the photo is taken, Graber and several other people, who represent several different types of disabilities, yell in unison: "This is what a disability looks like!"

There is a strong and ironic message in that single statement, coming from all the different voices blending together. Because there is no single face to disability.

And there is no single way to characterize Lydia Graber. She is an activist, a loving wife, a retired bank executive, a comedian and a ball of energy who never stops moving.

"While working with kids with disabilities or adults with disabilities," Graber says, "I tell them, 'We are individual people. We are special people. All of us. Because you are different, you are going to stand out to people. Depending on how you approach life, on how you approach people, you can make it work to your advantage.' "

And that is the secret behind Lydia Graber; her strength is the very thing that others view as her weakness.

"I have been blessed," she says.

Graber was born and raised in northwest Detroit. Both her parents and two older sisters are average size. "Lydia was never treated any differently," says her sister, Gail Moine, 62, of Clawson. "We were raised the same. My parents taught us, 'Yes you can.' "

Graber was born bowlegged. "The doctors told my mom that I'd be in a wheelchair at 25," she says. "But we proved them wrong."

When Graber turned 22, she packed up her 1970 Plymouth Duster and took off for California, where she lived for 14 years. She endured discrimination at almost every turn. She said that she applied for one job and that "I was told that I was too short and they weren't going to hire me. This was before the Americans with Disabilities Act. There wasn't too much recourse."

At another job, she wasn't promoted. "They said that if I sat at a podium, I could fall off a stool and hurt myself," Graber says.

"You can let people take advantage of you because of your size, or you can speak up."

Graber eventually got a job at Bank of America, and slowly climbed the corporate ladder. Eventually, she became a vice president of mortgage services. She is now retired.

While living in California, Graber made extra money working in television and movies.While shooting "Return of the Jedi," Graber was on location five weeks and earned $4,000 or $5,000. Graber, who worked under the name Lydia Green, is one of 68 Ewoks listed in the movie credits. She remembers the Ewok costumes as being hot. "The Ewoks looked like little teddy bears," Graber says.

Graber says she can spot herself in the movie: "You can pick me out because I was the only Ewok on a glider. I got shot down. The other scene was with Chewbacca with two Ewoks. We went to the chicken walker and I had a club and beat up the storm troopers and threw them out. Chewbacca was sitting on the right side, there was an Ewok driving and I was standing in the middle."

Graber met her husband, Marvin Graber, at a Little Person convention in Nashville, Tenn.

"When I met her, she stood out in a crowd," says Marvin Graber, who stands 4 feet, 7 inches. "Everybody there was a Little Person, but she was the center of attention."

Lydia and Marvin Graber married in 1988 but did not have children because of her medical problems. "She did not feel that was a good idea," says Marvin Graber, who has cartilage-hair hypoplasia, another form of dwarfism.

Lydia Graber and her husband have opposite personalities. She is outgoing and he is more reserved.

"I can't walk up to somebody and start talking like she can," says Marvin Graber, who works at Ford Motor as a parts distribution dispatcher based in Brownstown Township.

Their house has been modified to accommodate their size. The sinks and counters were lowered to make it easier for both of them. Lydia Graber drives a van with pedal extensions.

"I feel very fortunate to be married to her," Marvin Graber says.

In 1993, Gov. John Engler appointed Lydia Graber to the Michigan Commission on Disability Concerns. She served for 10 years, eventually chairing the commission, which represents the concerns of Michigan's 1.9 million people with disabilities.

One of Graber's pet projects was developing the Michigan Youth Leadership Forum, which is where she met Zach Damon, one of the youth participants. "Lydia was very influential for me," says Damon, 24. "She was saying, 'Look, you have to advocate for yourself.'

"More importantly, she has a great mental attitude. She is infectious. The way she goes about her life is inspiring."

In 2002, Graber was appointed to serve as a member of the Northwest Airlines Consumer Advisory Board for travelers with disabilities. After Delta acquired Northwest, Graber moved to the advisory board there, where she chairs the training and compliance committee.

"We help Delta with how to treat people with respect and dignity," Graber says. "We want them to realize that people with disabilities have money and travel. They shouldn't be treated like second-class citizens."

David S. Martin, the disabilities program manager at Delta, describes Graber as "one of the most unique and authentic people I know. She'll challenge you, make you think and then make you laugh."

Graber tries to educate people about Little People every chance she gets.

After all these years, she knows when people are staring at her, or talking about her.

Graber will be walking through a mall or a store and hear a little kid: "Mommy, Mommy, look."

But the child's mother will be busy looking at a clothes rack.

"Mommy, Mommy, look."

Then the mom will turn and look at Graber.

"Usually, the parents get very embarrassed and try to apologize and drag them away," Graber said. "I've seen them slap them upside the head."

Graber will try to stop the mother and child.

"No, that's OK," she will say to the child, "You can ask me any question you want."

Usually, the children ask: "Why are you so little?"

"That's the way God made me," she'll say. "You know how some people have blue eyes and some people have brown eyes and some people are tall and some people are short? Well, that's kind of like me."

"If a child says something like 'midget,' I'll correct them and say, 'Midget is not a nice word. We are called Little People.' "

She loves being a Little Person.

But more than anything, she loves making people laugh. She tries to use humor to crack through that barrier and make everybody see her as a person, not as someone facing a disability.

"My approach has always been to use my sense of humor," she says, "and make them feel comfortable."