More than my stature: Navigating life with dwarfism

More than my stature: Navigating life with dwarfism

by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

After being talked into buying lunch for her junior sister Natalie, freshman Caity Briare walks across the quad to The Commons. There, she and Natalie go into the bathroom to wash their hands before heading to join the lines of hungry Pilots. 

Almost instinctively, as they approach the sinks, Natalie pumps a dollop of soap into her hand and then plops it into Caity’s hand. This small gesture saved Caity the usual leap she has to do to reach the soap dispenser. 

This is an example of the many times freshman Caity Biare has to get a little extra help to navigate a world that wasn’t built for her.

Briare was born with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, when she was a baby. Having dwarfism means having a shorter stature due to a genetic or medical condition; usually it refers to people with height under 4 feet 10 inches. 

Briare is not the only one at UP whose stature has impacted the way they interact with the world. When senior Miranda Reyes was three years old, she was diagnosed with hypochondroplasia, another form of dwarfism. It wasn’t until her toddler years that doctors began to see her slip off the growth chart and increased bowing in her legs, a common trait of people with dwarfism. 

Both know all too well the feeling of eyes staring at them. By now they have gotten used to the second glances and extended looks. They realize that most people don’t have ill-will, but instead the looks often come from a sense of curiosity. It doesn’t bother them so much anymore. But that doesn’t mean life for them is always simple. 

Since they were young, they have always known that they are different. Adjustments and extra assistance are normal parts of their day.

But like all other college students, they go to class, spend time with friends, binge watch Netflix shows and create art. They are much more than their stature.

Growing Up

Briare and Reyes had fairly normal childhoods and faced the same struggles most kids do like bullying, making friends and balancing extracurriculars with homework. But having dwarfism presented some extra challenges.

“I always knew I was different. It’s just a part of me. I couldn’t run as fast as other people and wasn’t really great at shooting free throws,” Briare said with a laugh. 

Both Reyes and Briare grew up going to Catholic school with pretty much the same group of kids all the way through high school graduation. Both of them said growing up in this type of bubble was helpful because they never really had to explain themselves. As Briare said, she was “just Caity.”

Caity Briare is a freshman at UP.

by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

Briare said the most common thing she deals with is little kids pointing or asking their parents why she looks the way she does. She said it doesn’t bother her very much because she knows kids are just curious, but she wishes more parents wouldn’t brush off their kids’ questions. 

“I appreciate when parents explain it to their kids instead of being like ‘oh let’s go,’” Briare said. 

Briare has bowed legs, a common trait of people with dwarfism, which she said is why she isn’t as fast as those with straight limbs. While she hasn’t dealt with the joint pain that many with bowed legs experience, that doesn’t mean it is without challenges. 

Race day in gym class, which meant lots of running, would give high school freshman Briare a little bit of nerves to begin with. 

“I would always be a little self conscious because I knew when I run my legs look different than someone with straight legs. They kind-of go out to the sides,” Briare said. “After gym, I went to the bathroom and when I came out I saw these girls mocking how I would run and it kinda made me feel bad...Well, it did.” 

The fact that it was people she knew made it even worse for Briare. 

“We weren’t best friends, but I thought we were buddies,” Briare said. 

Briare said even though she had experienced people making fun of her before, it was a six-year-old girl with dwarfism who changed her perspective. 

Growing up, Briare didn't have a ton of interaction with others in the little people community. But when she was young, she attended a few Little People of America events. The organization aims to providing support, resources and community for those of short stature. When she was 14 years old, she attended a dinner for the Portland chapter and went outside to play with one of the little girls also attending the event. 

“We were on a play structure and this other girl who didn’t have dwarfism came up to her and said, ‘why are you so small? You look weird,’” Briare said. “Then the little girl (with dwarfism) turned to me and said ‘she’s not nice, she doesn't know what she’s talking about.’ To experience from a different lens what I’ve experienced before was weird.”

Seeing this little girl react with such confidence struck Briare and reminded her of the times people had treated her with a lack of empathy. Briare said with tears in her eyes that the six-year-old girl allowed her to see things from another perspective. It gave her the desire to be stronger.

“If someone is pointing or laughing, even today I just walk away,” Briare said. “As I’ve grown up, I’ve gotten tougher and more confident. It doesn’t bother me as much.”

Reyes said she counts herself lucky to have not faced much of the discrimination many people with dwarfism often do.

“I have led a pretty privileged life comparatively to a lot of other people in the little people community,” Reyes said. “(Due to my type of dwarfism) I’m a little bit less affected than a lot of other people in the community. I tend to be a little bit taller than others.” 

Reyes said it wasn’t until she encountered new people outside of the school setting, like club soccer or summer camp, that she felt like she stood out a little bit more. There were more questions and more teasing. 

“Kids pick up a lot of words from their parents and the outside community,” Reyes said. “That’s when the word ‘midget’ would come up.” 

She said her experiences allowed her to better understand where people were coming from and helped her develop a thicker skin. 

“Previously working as a camp counselor, I know kids are blunt,” Reyes said. “I know kids are curious and genuinely they mean no harm by it at all. They just want to know.”

Throughout Reyes’s childhood and still today, she still gets questions from kids about why she looks the way she does. She approaches it by explaining that just like some people are born with blonde hair, she was born a little bit shorter. 

Reyes said it isn’t always kids she has to deal with. She will sometimes see adults staring at her when she is out. She’s learned to deal with it, but it angered her mom growing up. 

“I remember when I was a kid my mom used to get very protective and angry,” Reyes said. “When my mom would get frustrated, I remember tugging on her shirt being like ‘it’s fine’ and trying to calm her down.”

Reyes said the second glances or the prolonged stares are just something she lives with. She still believes that most are not accompanied with bad intentions, but instead, most people are just curious about something that is unfamiliar to them. 

Stools and Alterations

Most people wouldn’t think twice about daily tasks like brushing their teeth or filling up their water bottle. But for some people with dwarfism, these tasks can require an extra step or two. 

At 52 inches tall, Reyes has had to make several adjustments in her life including putting pedal attachments in her car so she can reach the gas and the brakes. She thinks there are large gaps in accessibility for many people including those with dwarfism.

“Growing up and living in a world that is not exactly built for you is something I’ve had to deal with my whole life,” Reyes said. “My life involves a whole lot of stools and a whole lot of adjustments.”

For Briare and Reyes, stools are an everyday item in their lives. 

At Briare’s grade school and high school there were stools placed next to every drinking fountain so she could get a sip of water without having to ask for help. 

As Briare moved up in school, everything from the height of the desks to the counters got bigger. Fast forward to college, and there are plenty of challenges the freshman has found on The Bluff too. 

“I use a stool to hang up my clothes and I do have to bring stools to the sink to see myself in the mirror,” Briare said. “A lot of times, even in the bathrooms, the soap dispensers are far away and I have to launch myself across the sink.” 

Briare, who says she is “49 inches and counting,” doesn’t mind asking people for help and often asks strangers to lend her a hand. 

“The silverware in The Commons are so far back I can barely reach them so I have to wait for somebody to come by and be like ‘excuse me, can you pass me a fork?’” Briare said, laughing. “So, if they could put that a little closer (to the edge of the counter) that would be cool.”

A drawer full of cut-up pants

Stools and pedal attachments aren’t the only adjustments that Reyes and Briare have had to make. Both students agreed that finding clothes that fit them can present significant challenges. 

“I remember struggling a lot to fit in to the clothes that were catered to my age group,” Reyes said. “It’s a lot of adjusting to the world around you. It’s very evident when there are things built without you in mind.”  

When it comes to buying clothes, Reyes has a fairly average size torso so she can buy most extra-small or small tops and jackets and just roll up the sleeves. But pants pose a greater challenge.

“I buy regular women’s pants and I hem things,” Reyes said. “It’s not the hardest thing but it’s an extra step, extra stuff you have to pay for.” 

Miranda Reyes is a senior at UP.

by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

Today, Reyes can make almost anything fit with some alterations, but she remembers struggling when her friends were growing out of the kids sizes. They all started wearing adult clothes and she couldn’t. 

Briare loves fashion and has a unique sense of style. Like Reyes, shopping and getting dressed can be a challenge and usually requires a pair of scissors. 

“The only difference is when I get a pair of pants, I also get my scissors out of the drawer and chop it in half,” Briare said. “When I was cleaning out my closet to get ready for college, I found this huge drawer of halves of jean pants.” 

Style is very important to Briare because it allows her to express herself. She said she is appreciative of how her family has helped her make the trickier items fit. 

Briare has a unique sense of style. She often has to alter her clothes to make sure they fit correctly.

by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

“My aunt, Aunt TT, helps me with my prom dress and stuff like that. I’m really grateful for her,” Briare said, her eyes welling up with tears. “She’s done both my prom dresses and sometimes if there are pants I need taken in she’s like ‘oh yes!’ and she loves doing it. She does so much for me.”

Briare said she gets her clothes at the same stores everyone else does. But, in true Portland fashion, her and her sisters love thrift shopping, which is where she finds some of her most unique pieces. For Briare, one of the biggest challenge in fashion is finding shoes that fit. 

“I wear a 13 and a half or one, it depends...,” Briare said. “So, it’s hard to find shoes sometimes because typically someone who is a (size) one is a toddler who likes pink and light up, which is nice but not really what I wear.” 

Life on the Bluff

Even though Briare is getting into the swing of college academics, she said there are things she wishes she could do that the design of the classrooms doesn’t allow. 

“When the teacher asks if people can volunteer to write on the board, I can’t really volunteer because the chalk ledge is at my eye,” Briare said. “If they did have a stool in there maybe I could but that’s okay.”

Briare thought people would be more mature in college, but there have been incidents that really upset her. Earlier this semester, Briare was looking for a study spot at the library when she realized some students were making fun of her.

“I don’t know if I should say, but they were on the basketball team,” Briare said. “This dude saw me walking towards him and said something to his friend, laughed and looked back at me. Then his friend looked at me and laughed, and they both started laughing at me, and the girl they were with was like ‘oh stop it’ to them.”

When Briare told her older sisters about the situation, they were outraged and ready to stand up for her, but she talked them down. 

“It’s just really annoying. And now when I see them, it’s like I just don’t want to deal with that again,” Briare said. “Like, hello we’re in college now, and you laugh at me? What?”

Briare said that even though situations like that hurt in the moment, she has more important things to focus on, like her homework, new friends and her family with three older sisters and two younger brothers. 

Reyes considers herself lucky to have not experienced too much hurtful discrimination while at UP. But one of her biggest challenges in college has been accessibility as a Division 1 athlete on campus. 

Reyes is a senior coxswain on the women's rowing team. 

by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

As a coxswain on UP’s rowing team, Reyes is very busy with early morning practices on the Willamette (she gets up before 6 a.m. six days a week) and team workouts. But for Reyes, sometimes the most frustrating part of her day is not a rough practice, but rather the facilities the team uses. 

“In our locker rooms, I can’t reach the shower (dial). They are really high,” Reyes said. “I just have a plastic stool in the shower to reach it, but before that I’d have one of my friends run in and turn it on before I got in.”

Reyes said whenever she encounters things like that, she takes them in as her life experience. She knows that she is a lot less affected than some other little people. 

“I am fairly tall for a little person,” Reyes said. “If this isn’t accessible for me this wouldn’t be accessible to most other people in the (little people) community.”

Reyes thinks that height is often not thought of as an accessibility issue, which is something she would like to see improved. 

“Places are getting better at making places more accessible for the diverse population, (but) height is not usually what they think of first,” Reyes said. “All the accessibility changes are super necessary and needed but people don’t always think of height.”

Reyes said if you ask, people are usually accommodating, like switching lockers with her so she can have the lower locker or have the lower shelf in the dorm. 

“It’s the fact that you have to ask in the first place,” Reyes said. “It can get overwhelming or frustrating, but it’s one of the things I’ve gotten used to.” 

Despite the challenges and adjustments that dwarfism has them make, Reyes and Briare do not let allow their height define them. They have passions that range from rowing to coaching to collaging to fashion to jewelry making. 

They live with people who may occasionally make fun of them, with media that portrays them inaccurately or not at all, with alterations and adjustments they have to make in most aspects of their life. But after all of that, they are just like any other college student trying to find their place. 

“You know, it’s okay to be different,” Briare said. “We’re all human in the end. I just have a different body. That’s it.” 

by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

Delaney Vetter is the opinions editor at The Beacon. She can be reached at vetter20@up.edu.

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