The fact that he made the statement in October — National Dwarfism Awareness Month — makes it all the more significant that his home of the past four years is recognized as a leading community in embracing diversity.
Standing 4 feet 2 inches tall, Shipp describes Cleveland as “a fantastic place to live” with very kind, open-minded and generous people — a huge contrast, he says, to his life in Florida.
“Here — they just opened their arms up,” said Shipp. “I lived in Florida for 30 years and people down there — that’s just a melting pot. A lot of people down there are just plane rude. I lived there because of my job and my kids.”
Shipp has achondroplasia, a disorder of bone growth that accounts for 70 percent of all cases of dwarfism and is the most common type. He said he realized he was “different” when he first attended school in the 1950s and couldn’t reach the water fountains.
He also remembers all the fingers pointing at him in the first grade. It was during those early years leading into adulthood that Shipp admits to experiencing height discrimination with its own unique sting. He said he and some of his black friends would discuss their different forms of discrimination.
“I would say, ‘They wouldn’t let you in. They’d let me in but laugh and snicker at me the whole time. So I wouldn’t want to go back. It was no fun being there,” Shipp said.
From 1980 to 1998, however, Shipp said he had the ideal job working at Disney World as Donald Duck for millions of excited children and celebrities who visited the Magic Kingdom.
During those 18 years, Shipp met everyone from legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite and musical guests Gladys Knight, the Bee Gees, Meat Loaf and Eddie Rabbit to Super Bowl MVPs, Olympic teams, football coach Vince Dooley, Herschel Walker and actors Michael Landon, Michael Keaton, Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, John Stamos, the “Cosby kids” and many others.
According to Shipp, being a little person on the big stage at Disney had its advantages until he had to have back surgery.
“Most little people have scoliosis which is a curvature of the spine,” he explained. “As you get older it finally gets you. There’s an opening in the bottom of your spine that all your nerves go down to. As little people get older that opening starts closing up and you start losing feeling in your legs.
“You end up not being able to walk — especially when you tried to be athletic which I always tried to do. It caught up with me when I was around 49 years old.”
Now at age 60 the father of two girls and grandfather of four average-sized grandchildren gets around in a powered wheelchair. However, this does not stop Shipp from working part-time as an official scorer during basketball season at Cleveland State Community College as well as being its public address announcer during baseball season.
He also volunteers in the youth sports department at the Cleveland Family YMCA as a football timer and basketball official scorer. The way everyone embraced Shipp and worked to keep him involved in the community played a large part in the official scorer grading his new home an A as a warm community.
“Bradley County and the people of Cleveland have treated me fantastic,” Shipp said. “My church, Tasso United Methodist Church and the athletic department at Cleveland State raised $3,000 and got a lift for my van. The church raised $2,500 and Cleveland State came up with the rest. I was surprised they raised that much for me.”
With television shows like “Little People, Big World” on TLC, depicting the lives of dwarfs and National Dwarfism Awareness Month making strides in eliminating height discrimination, Shipp offered a piece of advice for average-size people wanting to improve their height sensitivities.
“Don’t start out looking at someone and seeing the negatives,” he said. “Give them a chance. We can do just about anything but we have to do it our own way. I can wash dishes but I have to do it with a stool. I can do sports but I have to do it a different way. I can certainly do anything at a desk or with a computer. I can also drive.”
Lois Lamb, president of Little People of America, said “People with dwarfism are no different than any other person. We may just need a well-placed stool. Our members are children, college students, business professionals, doctors, engineers, mechanics, artists and teachers. We can do anything an average-height person can do.”
There are about 30,000 dwarfs in America, according to the LPA which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with dwarfism while celebrating little people’s contribution to social diversity.
The U.S. Library of Medicine describes the incidence of dwarfism to be 1 in 25,000 people. Some surveys reveal people perceive and treat people of shorter stature as inferior, that they are paid less than taller people who are also favored in hiring for manual labor and preferred in most professional sports over shorter people.
The mission of Little People of America is to bring solutions and global awareness to the prominent issues affecting individuals of short stature and their families.
For more information about National Dwarfism Awareness Month, visit www.lpaonline.org or call 1-888-LPA-2001.