For Little People, Big Disappointment in the Job Market


Ridiculed and cast out for being shorter than the average person, people with dwarfism live a challenging life in Pakistan where being in public means getting pushed around, laughed at or worse: Picked up like a child without permission. When looking for a job, the stigma follows them to the interview room where most of them are rejected because of their height despite fulfilling the eligibility criteria. It is not surprising then that the only two roles we remember people with dwarfism from is either a doorkeeper outside a restaurant or a comic character in a show.

“We don’t get the jobs we want or the jobs we are qualified for. Our system is not based on merit. A medical student won’t be hired as a doctor; an engineer won’t be given the opportunity to take on relevant responsibilities. Employers ask how will you reach the operating table or how can you operate a certain machinery. This is how educated little people are discriminated,” activist from Karachi Kamran Khan wails.

Khan heads the Sindh chapter of non-governmental organisation Little People of Pakistan (LPP) which works for the well-being of people with dwarfism across the country. People with short stature are adults under the height of 4ft 10in and prefer to be called little people as opposed to derogatory terms such as midget.

An LPP member from Lahore, Samia Saleh, asks why educated little people are not given equal opportunities to work when they take the same exam, pay the same fee and get no special treatment. “Why do employers assume little people cannot fulfil job responsibilities? We live full lives despite our limitations; they should take it as a sign of determination. I think little people should be preferred because they have already proven they can overcome any problem that comes their way,” she argues.

For little people, big disappointment in the job market 02PHOTO: LITTLE PEOPLE OF PAKISTAN

Saleh, who works at Punjab government’s department for special education, says, “Morality demands we support little people more because they have fought social stigmas and faced more challenges than a person with an average height.”

Criticising employers for their reluctance to make workplaces accessible, LPP’s Khan says businesses lack the will to accommodate people with different needs. “In developed countries, little people are found in every profession. In Pakistan, despite the stated commitment to provide equal opportunity, no measures are taken in this regard,” he condemns.

The activist from Karachi says because of these prejudices, talented engineers, doctors and architects are forced to change their goals and work unrelated jobs to make ends meet.

The discrimination, sadly, doesn’t end here. Khan says many companies agree to hire little people only to fulfil the official requirement to employ people with disabilities. Some, he says, even pay less for the same amount of work. “If the job description says an employee will get Rs30,000 per month, little people will be paid Rs12,000 only,” he states.

Often, Khan adds, little people go for a job interview assuming the work will be related to their skills and qualification but are offered irrelevant and demeaning duties.

Calling on the government to have a quota for little people just like people with disabilities, Saleh says this will encourage them to study and have a respectable job. “I ask little people working low-paying jobs why don’t they study and their response is that it will be a futile exercise because they will never get a job,” she says.

“Actors, sportsperson, people with disabilities all get special privileges, then why not us?” Saleh asks.

For little people, big disappointment in the job market 03PHOTO: LITTLE PEOPLE OF PAKISTAN

Khan fears the painful experience of rejection is forcing little people to beg – a profession he claims little people always stayed away from. Given the limited employment options available to them, the LPP official from Karachi says the government should help people with dwarfism set up small businesses. “This may be the answer to their woes,” he hopes.

Legal lacunae

Opinions vary within the dwarf community about whether dwarfism is a disability or not and because of this uncertainty, the laws for people with disabilities are not always applied to little people. Qasim Zia, LPP activist from Rawalpindi, says the absence of a proper policy covering the needs of people with dwarfism makes it difficult to fight the discrimination faced by little people in the job market.

Samar Naqvi, senior manager programmes at Network of Organizations Working with People with Disabilities, Pakistan (NOWPDP), says there’s an ongoing debate within the dwarf community if the word disability applies to them or not. “Some consider themselves as people with disability while others don’t. We at NOWPDP follow the definitions of United Nations and World Health Organisation which define disabilities as impairments that restrict a person’s full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others,” she explains, adding that Americans with Disabilities Act defines dwarfism as a medical condition.

In Naqvi’s opinion, there should not be a quota for people with dwarfism because they are capable of fully participating in all activities. “The only problem little people may face is of access, otherwise their mobility is not limited nor do they lack any sensory, intellectual or physical ability. Having a quota for little people is just excluding them from the mainstream,” she says.

With little people adamant to have an employment quota, Naqvi however says their demand makes sense given how discriminatory our society is towards anyone who is even slightly different. When it comes to being out of the ordinary, “In Pakistan, no one’s spared,” she says.

“Let’s be honest, women needed quota; women still need quota,” Naqvi adds.

The government is currently working on a law for protection of disadvantaged groups and a draft bill has been finalised by the human rights ministry. Called the Tribunal for Disadvantaged Persons Bill, 2016, the law defines disadvantaged persons as women, children, transgender persons, people with disabilities and those belonging to minority groups. Human rights ministry’s legal consultant Sharafat Ali Chaudhry, who played a key role in drafting the bill, says while the specific terms ‘little people’ or ‘people with dwarfism’ are not used in the current text, the bill covers the group.

For little people, big disappointment in the job market 04PHOTO: LITTLE PEOPLE OF PAKISTAN

Quoting the definition used in the new bill which is originally from the Disabled Persons Ordinance, 1981, Chaudhry says a person with disability means someone ‘who, on account of injury, disease or congenital deformity, is handicapped for undertaking any gainful profession or employment in order to earn his livelihood’. “In my opinion, the use of words and phrases such as ‘disease’, ‘deformity’ and ‘handicapped for undertaking any gainful profession’ in the current draft covers people with dwarfism,” he says.

However, Chaudhry stresses there’s a wide scope for review in the draft and once the ministry gets the principal approval from the prime minister, the issue of mentioning little people specifically will definitely come under discussion during the next stage of consultations.

“The basic objective of this law is to protect the marginalised groups; if someone is disadvantaged, they will be entertained under this bill. In simple words, the new law stands with the disadvantaged against the authorities who have violated their rights,” he explains.

Chaudhry says Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is taking personal interest in the bill and that is why the law ministry has already been sent a copy for review to speed up the process. “If this bill is promulgated into a law, tribunals will be set up for the first time to receive complaints against violation of the rights of disadvantaged people,” he says.

Change of heart

As part of its Yaqeeen programme, NOWPDP works with different institutions helping them become inclusive. Naqvi says it involves conducting workshops to sensitise the workforce, making the workplace accessible, bringing structural changes and helping with recruitment. “At one of the big corporations we worked with, a senior official was a person with dwarfism. In organisations that celebrate diversity and believe in equal opportunities, little people should not face any problem. It is a natural amalgamation,” she says.

For little people, big disappointment in the job market 05PHOTO: LITTLE PEOPLE OF PAKISTAN

However, she says little people do face discrimination elsewhere. “They are hired to be used as a spectacle and treated like a show piece. The idea behind employing them is solely the benefit of the business and not what skills the person has to offer, which is against the very ethos of diversity at workplace,” Naqvi says.

“Organisations that are immature and are guided by the stereotypes embedded in our society do that and I have seen it happening,” she shares.

With limited tolerance in our society, the NOWPDP manager says the first step is to start seeing little people as individuals. “In developing countries, systems are built in such a way that they don’t accommodate little people. People grow up not having studied or worked with a person with dwarfism. It is different in developed countries where little people study and work side by side with everyone else. This has an impact on how little people are seen in society; it changes the perception about them,” she says.

The situation only gets worse, Naqvi says, as little people grow up. “Simple things are made difficult for them like looking for a job, travelling or even getting married,” she says.

While Naqvi agrees the government needs to play a role, she says businesses should also follow through with their commitment to equal opportunity for all. “It is often used as a fancy statement but it has to be implemented in its true spirit,” she says.

And for a deeper and lasting change, Naqvi says everyone in the society needs to start playing their role. “If we can be aware and helpful, we all can make a difference. Few of us can set an example for others to take the lead from,” she says.

Sharing the story of a little boy who tries to save the lives of thousands of starfish washed up on the shore after a storm, Naqvi says he was stopped by an elderly and told he won’t be able to make much difference given the sheer number. “The boy picked another starfish, threw it back in the sea and said: It made a difference to that one! That is actually it!” she concludes.

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