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The D Word

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Those of you who have watched HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones will no doubt have taken note of Peter Dinklage, the actor who plays Tyrion Lannister, also known as the the Imp. Tyrion is a dwarf – not a Tolkien dwarf but a human one — whose role in a world that has little sympathy for those with physical differences is an interesting one, to say the least. Dinklage plays the role to the hilt, being a dwarf himself and having had a career that for many years was a struggle because he refused to accept any of the easy work often given to dwarf actors — Santa Claus elves around Christmastime, for example.

Dinklage won an Emmy last year for his work in Game of Thrones, and it is well-deserved. He also won a Golden Globe for that same work this year, and in his acceptance speech, he said that people should Google the case of Martin Henderson, a dwarf in England injured by a few people who thought it might make good sport to throw the little man around. Some thought Dinklage was dedicating his award to Henderson; he was not. He was, however, drawing attention to the fact that dwarfism is one of the few disabilities left where it is okay for people to openly ridicule.

Dinklage is an interesting person. His dwarfism defines him, but only to a point. And for as much as it is a disability, Dinklage himself does not fly that banner. And why should he? For the physical limitations that his physical structure may have imposed on him, he has succeeded despite it, and to some degree because of it. Some days he is okay with being a dwarf. Some days he is not. All days he is who he is because of it, and in the long run, it would seem to be a good thing.

I bring all of this up because it touches on something I mentioned in the cover story of April’s National Underwriter Life & Health, a story called “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. It is about, in large part, USMC Cpl Matias Ferreira, who lost his legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan in January 2011. Not yet a full year after that, Matias was running his first half-marathon — and on two artificial legs — at the Disney half-marathon in Orlando, Florida. I urge you to read this story of mine, because I feel that people like Matias — and organizations like Achilles International and Cigna, which both went to great lengths to support Matias — are redefining what it means to be disabled.

Like Dinklage, Ferreria acknowledges that he is different because of his condition, but he refuses to employ the word “disabled.” And like Dinklage, why should he? As I noted to him when writing the story, I am in the best shape of my life. I recently brown belted in mixed martial arts, and at my physical this year, my doctor said that if everybody did what I did healthwise, she would be out of a job. And yet, I cannot run a half-marathon. I am simply not conditioned for it. But Matias can. And somehow, we hang this word “disabled” on him, when he can do something most others cannot, even without the legs he was born with.

We live in an age where our political correctness drives us to look past people’s differences because in the past, we let those differences be an excuse to discriminate wrongly against our fellow man. But along the way, we have tricked outselves into thinking that we do not see these things, when we clearly do. The trick is not to ignore our friends who have physical differences, but to accept that those differences are nothing to judge, and in many cases, they are, in fact, a unique pathway for one’s own journey to success and excellence. Perhaps the best way we could do this would be to stop using the words “disabled” and “disability,” though I confess I do not know what to replace them with. I do know that whatever word we choose, the disability insurance market will have some rebranding to do.

I leave you with two pieces of video that I found inspiring. Both are of MMA fighters. Both are what we might consider disabled. Nick Newell is missing an arm. Matt Betzold is missing a leg. And both are fierce competitors, who you will see, are victorious not in spite of their condition, but because of it. Something for us all to think about.


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