“One more time, do it again.’ The dulcet tones and schizophrenic rhythms of Robyn and Royksopp were pulsing in my eardrums. I was completely absorbed by the melody and paid little attention to my surroundings. while I walked to a bus stop in a suburban part of Dublin. People ambled past, each of us bordered by semi-detached uniform residences on one side and a litany of traffic and frustrated commuters on the other.
An unexpected movement in my peripheral vision disrupted my concentration and disturbed both Robyn and Royksopp. A car pulled out of the line of traffic and into the bus lane. That’s not strange. Risky, but quite common.
But then, the car stopped – right where I was walking. That was strange.
With piqued interest, I looked into the car and without a hint of embarrassment, the passenger angled her camera at me and placed her phone against the window. A light flashed. The image was captured. They drove off.
Months later, I’m still angry and emotional when I recall that moment. The vulnerability and upset that I felt remains palpable. The sense of unknown on the use of that photo and where it may appear on the Internet continues to perplex me.
I wish I could admit that this instance was the first of its kind or unique in some way, but it is just one example of when strangers have found me to be humorous, odd, confusing and different without ever interacting with me. Typically, the name-calling, pointing, staring and laughing doesn’t penetrate my proverbial, well-oiled armour, but this moment wormed its way through the iron and steel plates.
My name is Sinéad Burke. I am a PhD candidate within the School of Education in Trinity College, a primary school teacher, a broadcaster, an Alternative Miss Ireland emeritus, a blogger, a friend, a niece, a cousin, a sister and a daughter. I pride myself on being a good listener, innately inquisitive, a professional perfectionist, empathetic to difference and having a sharp but slightly sarcastic sense of humour.
On first meeting me, not one of the aforementioned qualities are explicitly obvious. I do have one defining physical characteristic that has moulded and shaped my life and experiences though. I am a little person.
I was born with the genetic condition achondroplasia. At twenty-four years of age, I am fully-grown but stand at 105.5cm (3ft 5in). In my seven-person family, it is just my dad and I who have this restricted growth condition; my mother and four siblings are all of average height.
“When did you realise you weren’t normal?” is a question that I have been asked in countless interviews. Some journalists have attempted to be more polite in their phrasing, but that question serves to remind me that I have lived my life with others subscribing to the narrative that I am different, not like them – an ‘other’. Growing up, the focus of my development was never my ‘otherness’, but my personality and unique traits – I was always just Sinéad. No less but equal.
This egalitarian perspective was commonplace throughout my development. My parents are the most caring, respectful, challenging, loving, confident, supportive and kind people that you could imagine. Their enthusiasm and appetite for life is contagious, my siblings and I are inexplicably lucky. Natasha is selfless, Niamh is a confidante, Chris is compassionate and Chloe is generous beyond measure. They are my safe space.
Collectively, they provided me with the time to become my own person. They instilled in me a belief that I could realise my dreams and ambitions. We faced obstacles together. They protected me when necessary and provided a platform where I could find my own voice.
The greatest challenges in being a little person have been twofold; the physical environment and societal stereotypes. I have tackled both obstacles and feel confident that in most instances, I have made a positive change. I have been extremely fortunate to not experience the chronic back and joint pain which is part of everyday life for many of my friends with this condition, nor did I have visual or hearing impairments in childhood which is also common among little people.
But becoming pregnant worries me. My education on childbirth is from the media and the experiences of family and friends, but rarely has the story of the 105.5cm-tall mother been told. I’m nervous about anaesthesia and how the drug will be appropriately measured for my height and body weight. I’m concerned about the necessary caesarean section and how it may limit the number of children I can have.
Mostly though, I’m worried about having children with someone who is a little person like me. We cannot predict or choose whom we fall in love with but becoming pregnant by someone who also has achondroplasia can bring further complications.
With every birth, there is a twenty-five per cent chance that the foetus receives two doses of the mutate FGFR3 gene (the gene that causes achondroplasia) and will not survive birth. It is a traumatic experience for any couple to endure. I have friends who have experienced it on several occasions.
Current Irish legislation decrees that I must carry this baby until full-term and while I’ve had plenty of time to think this situation over, at present, I am scared by my sense of uncertainty over what I would do.
If I could return to that moment in Dublin – walking to the bus stop, being targeted by the driver and passenger – I would do things differently. I would engage with the duo, ask them to wind down their window and answer their questions while posing several of my own. A wishful re-imagining of that moment epitomises many of the societal challenges that exist in being a little person.
Perhaps it would be easier to be less different and more ‘normal’, whatever that means. But I would never wish not to be me. I have achieved a gargantuan amount in a brief time – and none of it in spite of my difference. My physicality has provided a unique lens for me to look at life through. It has helped me to celebrate my own uniqueness and realise that difference is something to be proud of.