Erin Pritchard (2021). Dwarfism, Spatiality and Disabling Experiences. London: Routledge. ISBN: 780367644307

Reviewed by Poppy Budworth
University of Manchester, UK

poppy [dot] budworth [at] manchester [dot] ac [dot] uk

Dwarfism, Spatiality and Disabling Experiences is a Routledge published book by Disability Studies and Human Geography scholar, Dr Erin Pritchard. This inter-disciplinary monograph draws on Pritchard’s Doctoral research, which explores the socio-spatial experiences of people living with dwarfism in the UK. The empirical discussions in this book are based on twenty-two semi-structured interviews with photo elicitation, and the participants were mostly women. Alongside the ‘care-full’ (Lonkila 2021) sharing of her participants’ everyday lives, Pritchard thoughtfully plaits her own personal reflections about body size, spatiality, and disabling experiences into her writing.

The book begins with a rich and explanatory introductory chapter, which informs, justifies, and familiarises the reader with language and terminology used throughout the four empirical sections. For instance, Pritchard rationalises why the phrase ‘people with dwarfism’ has been chosen, whilst acknowledging that a ‘person-first’ approach was not the preferred terminology for all the participants who took part in the research. This discussion is situated within a wider, complex debate around the use of identity-first (i.e. ‘Dwarf’, ‘Disabled person’) or person-first (i.e. ‘person with dwarfism’, ‘person with a disability’) language. Pritchard then outlines the four discussion chapters, each focusing on a different spatial experience of dwarfism. The chapters, ‘Access tall spaces’, ‘Resisting spaces’, ‘Disabling identities’ and ‘Cultural representations […] and the social consequences’, speak to interdisciplinary themes across and within Geography and Disability Studies. Pritchard’s explicitly geographical approach to disability research acknowledges the spatial elements of everyday life and identity making. Whether that be identifying spatial barriers, uncovering spatial relations with others, or thinking about how these spaces change over time, bridging the disciplines allows a greater focus on the participants’ relational lives. To close the introductory section, Pritchard points towards the book’s reflective conclusion. The conclusion cements the book’s novel and important contributions to Disability Studies, Geographies of Body Size and Geographies of Disability through Pritchard’s amplification of the (previously limited) socio-spatial and disabling experiences of people with dwarfism, in the UK.

Chapter Two: Access Tall Spaces explores the multiple ways in which people with dwarfism negotiate the built environment, at different scales. ‘From door handles to supermarket checkouts’ Pritchard (2021b:10) embeds examples of her participants’ encounters to demonstrate the disabling reality of such vital everyday space and infrastructure. The chapter draws on the Social Model of Disability to highlight the ways in which public spaces can be sites of marginalisation and discrimination. Within these discussions, Pritchard works with key terms from disability scholarship and activism such as ‘ableism’ and ‘normalcy’, making this text an appropriate and useful read for students, researchers and activists interested in disability studies.

In addition, the initial empirical chapter outlines some of the adaptive practices utilised by people with dwarfism to navigate disabling barriers. These strategies included using alternative spaces, avoiding spaces, and asking others for help (when safe to do so). Through her participants’ lived experiences, Pritchard discusses children’s spaces as both enabling and disabling. Both ‘Ivy’ and ‘Lydia’ reveal that the availability of children’s sinks in public toilets can improve people’s use of the built environment due to the height of these wash facilities being lower than that of the average size sinks. However, ‘Alison’ and ‘Kayleigh’ discuss how barriers and locks which prevent children from using certain vital spaces, such as ticket machines and playgrounds, can also exclude people with dwarfism. Pritchard raises an important, albeit sensitive, point about how children’s spaces (whether they enable or disable) contribute to the infantilisation of people with dwarfism. These discussions present opportunities for future work, which could explore the impact of infantilising encounters on people’s sexual identities and intimate lives (see Liddiard 2017).

The third chapter, Resisting Spaces, builds on discussions about acts of resistance and the mechanisms used to negotiate spatial barriers. Pritchard refers to dependent, independent, and interdependent care relationships, sharing similar points of interest as literature within ‘Crip theory’ (Kafer 2013). An explicit integration of this work into Pritchard’s analysis and discussion would be a compelling addition, as Crip theory recognises and celebrates seeing, and being in the world differently. Another key concept in disability scholarship, ‘psycho-emotional Disablism’, is introduced in this section. Through the careful integration of her participants’ voices, Pritchard uncovers the impacts of unwanted attention on their wellbeing and how this shapes the spatial management tactics they employ.

Disabling Identities, the fourth chapter, speaks to the contested nature of dwarfism as disability. Pritchard furthers important discussions about self-identity, body size, mobility aids and perceptions about what it means (and looks like) to be ‘Disabled’. Making a significant and novel contribution to work on invisible illnesses/impairments, Pritchard pushes the boundaries and demonstrates that impairment does not have to be ‘invisible’ to be absent from disability discourse. These important considerations extend on emerging research and activism, which argue for chronic illness and bodily difference to be encapsulated in, and understood through, disability scholarship.

The chapter thoughtfully explores the participants’ perception of ‘dwarfism as a disability’, which helps the reader to gain a broader and more nuanced understanding of what it means to be Disabled. Pritchard explores sticky topics, such as internalised ableism and hierarchy of illness/impairment, as her participants spoke of the negative connotations associated with ‘disability’, or did not feel ‘disabled enough’ to identify with the language. Through the course of these discussions, Pritchard beautifully amplifies the voices of her participants and demonstrates the importance of embedding quotes into academic publications to portray lived experiences.

Chapter five, the final empirical chapter, focuses on the social consequences of the ubiquitous cultural representations of people with dwarfism. Critically, the chapter reveals the link between the entertainment industry and ableist and reductive discourses surrounding people with dwarfism, which then play out in everyday space. Pritchard shows how cultural representations shape how people with dwarfism navigate their everyday lives as their bodies and social lives are framed as inferior, placeless, and for the entertainment of others. These representations encourage the public to participate in harmful acts of violence against people with dwarfism, such as name-calling and physically manhandling people without their consent. Again, the voices of the participants make evident the extensive and engrained nature of ableist representations in the media, and the impacts these have on the participants’ wellbeing, encounters with others, and access to space. In her recent and forthcoming work on cultural representation and the sized body, Pritchard builds on the discussions in her book through specific media examples, such as Family Guy (Pritchard 2021a) and the Seven Dwarfs pantomime (Pritchard 2022).

The sixth chapter concludes the book, bringing together the key themes as part of a wider discussion on the politics of identity and the sized body. Additionally, the closing section provides equality and access recommendations to improve the lives of people with dwarfism. Pritchard’s recommendations centre on the implementation of ‘Universal Design’, particularly ‘Design Principle Seven – Size and Space’ which ensures ‘appropriate reach, manipulation and use regardless of users’ body size, posture and mobility’ (Centre for Universal Design 1997 in Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012:12). Pritchard pushes for a shift towards positive cultural representations of people with dwarfism, as well as a societal reimagining of what it means, and looks like, to be Disabled. As mentioned, Pritchard’s most recent papers (2021a; 2022) critically explore the role of cultural representation in more depth and are well worth a read.

Pritchard’s extensive spatial account of dwarfism and disabling experiences provides a rich and thoughtful exploration of the multiple ways in which people with dwarfism experience everyday spaces, encounters, and representations. Pritchard handles her participants’ biographies with care, and attentively explains and integrates key theoretical concepts in an accessible and relevant way. This book, and Pritchard’s wider contributions, are situated within important bodies of work in Geography and Disability studies which explore the ‘sized body’, and the relational lives of Disabled people. Amplifying marginalised peoples’ socio-spatial and relational experiences is fundamental to challenge placelessness and exclusion and as such, Dwarfism, Spatiality and Disabling Experiences is a must read for Disability scholars, Geographers, and policy makers alike.