Life at her level

A Hagerstown woman, who is a Little Person, shares what life is like in a world built for the tall

A Hagerstown woman, who is a Little Person, shares what life is like in a world built for the tall

September 28, 2008|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

Vied the slideshow of Helen Willis.

Helen Willis, 43, of Hagerstown, has spent her entire life looking up at the world.

Even when she's in her own home, she forgoes the furniture and plops down onto the floor. "It's just more comfortable this way," she says as she pets her snow-white cat, aptly named Powder.

Willis is an achondroplasia dwarf, which is the most common form of dwarfism, according to Mount Sinai Medical Center's Web site. It occurs in three or four cases per 125,000 births. Achondroplasia is a genetic disorder in which bone and cartilage do not grow normally.

"Little People don't like the term 'midget,' because it's a blanket term," she says. "There are actually more than 200 types of dwarfism."


Willis was born to average-sized parents. Her older sister is also of average size. Willis says her dwarfism was caused simply by a "defective gene." Because of the condition, most people diagnosed with the disorder grow to a full height of less than 4 feet. Willis is 4 feet, 3 inches tall. Little People of America Inc. recognizes a Little Person as 4 feet, 11 inches tall or shorter.

Growing up in Spring Valley, N.Y., Willis says her parents didn't want her to make excuses for her short stature. They encouraged her to live a full life.

"They told me to be like everybody else, and try to be as independent as you can be," she says.

Willis works as a customer service representative for a credit card processing company in Hagerstown. Without a car, she starts her mornings at 5:30 a.m.

"I used to have a car, but I don't now because public transportation is just more economical," she says.

By 7:45 a.m., she's usually out the door. Powder usually takes his place for his morning ritual. "He's usually waiting in the window to see me out," she says.

If it's a nice day, she'll walk down the steep hill to meet the County Commuter at 8 a.m. That is if her legs aren't bothering her. According to Mount Sinai's Web site, many people with achondroplasia will have to several surgeries throughout their lives to correct skeletal deformities. Willis says she hasn't had any surgeries, but she does have leg pain.

Because of the joint problems associated with dwarfism, Willis has to manage her weight. So she doesn't mind the walk to the bus.

"It helps me get in some exercise, and you get to meet people," she says.

Willis says she likes taking the bus, especially with the 95-cent price tag because her dwarfism is seen as a disability. "It's cheaper than paying for a cab ride," she says, which she uses occasionally despite an average cost of $7 from home to work.

On a recent sunny morning, Willis makes the trek to the bus stop. The hill is so steep, an average person has to lean back slightly to handle the slope. Willis waits at the corner. She says she likes to get there early. If the bus is running late, she says she'll hike back to her home to call a cab. "I just can't be late to work," she says.

This morning, the bus arrives on time. Willis climbs the steps and drops the change into the machine before finding a seat. She says she likes the larger buses, because they have a special lift so that she doesn't have to navigate the steps. Today's bus doesn't have the lift.

This bus will be the first of two in order to get to work. She says hello to the bus driver, who automatically hands her a yellow transfer card. It would probably take Willis a few minutes to get to work if she drove, but the morning route, with a transfer, takes her nearly an hour. She has to transfer to another bus at 8:45 a.m. before arriving at work by 9 a.m.

Willis says she doesn't mind the ride. "For now, it's good for me," she says.

Shopping can be problematic for a Little Person, Willis explains.

First, there's just getting to the store. Parking lots, she says, can be a hazard. Because of her height, she's often not tall enough to be seen from a rear-view window.

"You have to be really careful when walking behind cars," she says.

Willis grabs a cart that she says is lower for her to use. She says she likes the smaller carts because she can actually reach into the higher basket without having to climb onto the cart.

As soon as the doors open to the supermarket, she stops to say hello to an older gentleman checking out. "He's one of the regulars who rides the bus on Saturdays," she says.

The routine happens again as she runs into a cab driver. Later, she'll stop to talk to the produce manager, who says she's a regular visitor. A few others pass by, and Willis takes time for a wave or a quick hello.

While she's walking through the store, a little girl tugs her mom's sleeve, whispers and points at Willis. Her mom shoos her hand before pulling her along. It's a sight that Willis is used to.

"Children are just curious," she says later. "It's nice if parents will teach their children about Little People."

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