When Joe Foos was growing up, big kids would sometimes pick him up, just to be mean.
Why? Because he is a little person. A dwarf.
In fact, he and his wife Ginny and their three children were all born with a genetic condition called achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism.
But while they’re short-statured, they’re as normal as everyone else—if you don’t count being filmed for a documentary on the Discovery Health Channel.
“Ginny and I love the opportunity to tell our story to educate people, especially kids,” said Foos. “The film crew followed us to baseball games, school, and to film Ginny as she was substitute teaching.”
The production company found the Foos family, who live in Pleasanton, after doing a Google search, said Ginny Foos. “They found a Tri-Valley Herald article written four years ago and contacted us in April. They were here filming in early June and even joined our family in July in Orlando as we attended the annual conference of Little People of America.”
Little People of America is a nonprofit organization founded in 1957 to support dwarfs through education and other opportunities.
The crew returns to Pleasanton this week to gather additional footage, including filming Joe in his role as sales director for Livermore-based Lanlogic.
Filming for the documentary, which currently does not have an airdate, is expected to wrap up in December.
“This isn’t reality television,” said Joe. “They don't stick a camera in our faces without asking.”
Rather, Joe and Ginny are working with the production team to ensure an accurate portrayal of the life of a family of little people. As president of the Bay Area chapter of LPA, Joe will distribute 500 copies of the production to the 50 LPA chapters across the United States.
“We hope the project will lead to production of other dwarf stories around the country to educate people about little people,” said Joe.
Central to that message is that dwarfs enjoy relatively good health, have normal life spans, are as intelligent, funny, spiritual, and, yes, as normal as everyone else.
The only difference is their size.
According to LPA’s website, people with achondroplasia have short arms and legs, but an average-sized trunk. The condition affects one in every 26,000 to 40,000 people, and occurs equally in men and women and within all races. Experts estimate that 10,000 little people live in the United States, with 150,000 to 230,000 worldwide.
“We can count on two hands all the dwarfs in the Tri-Valley, and that includes the five of us,” said Joe.
Limited contact with other little people is one reason the family is active in the local LPA chapter. The three Foos children get to interact with other youngsters who share the challenges of growing up smaller than almost everyone else.
“When you get a handful of dwarf kids together,” Joe said, “all of a sudden they are not the only ones being stared at or teased. They can play sports or ride bikes together without always having to catch up with everyone else. This raises their confidence and self-esteem tremendously.”
Similarly, dwarf children benefit from role models, Joe said. “Kids need to see themselves five or ten years down the road so they can feel happy with themselves instead of depressed about being the only one in the town or the only one at school.”
While Joe had few role models growing up, his parents--though average-sized--instilled in him strong self-confidence, he said.
Born in Los Angeles in 1966, Joe was 2 when his family moved to Lebanon. He lived in Beirut during the country’s civil war and eventually moved back with his family to the United States to enroll at the University of Santa Barbara.
He completed his degree at the University of San Francisco, which brought him to the Bay Area, where one day in 1987 he was approached by an attractive 22-year-old woman at a BART station in Oakland.
“I was looking at a map,” Joe said, “when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked into the face of a cute gal who asked if I was lost. We spoke for only a moment because our trains were arriving, and then she handed me her business card. It was pretty much love at first sight.”
Like Joe, Ginny moved to the Bay Area because of college. Born to average-sized parents, and with a brother over 6 feet tall, she grew up in a small town near Boston and found her way to Mills College where she first earned a degree in communications, and later obtained her teaching credential.
Joe and Ginny had their first child, Alex, 13 years ago. Two years later, in 1994, they adopted then 3-year-old Dasha, who is mildly autistic, from Russia. Ben, now 7, followed a few years later.
The Foos children are fortunate to have two dwarf parents, said Joe, because mom and dad understand the challenges the kids face everyday. “Parents who have a dwarf child without having dwarfism themselves will never know what it’s like to be teased in school or chosen last on a team on the playground, or to have to spend 15 minutes using the restroom when everyone else is finished in a couple of minutes.”
Fortunately, LPA can teach average-sized parents what they need to know about raising a dwarf child, said Joe. And LPA connects new parents with those who have already been through the experience.
Yet in spite of the challenges growing up little, the Tri-Valley is a good place to raise dwarf children.
“People's responses to our situation vary based on educational and socioeconomic factors,” said Ginny. “How the public reacts to us here in Pleasanton is very different to how it is in the inner cities.”
Joe agrees. “In this country, and especially in the Bay Area, our kids have more doors open to them than I ever did. Part of that is because society is more accepting and the Bay Area is open-minded.”
Much of that open-mindedness comes with education, which is one reason Ginny enjoys substitute teaching. “In any given week I am in front of 300 kids, indirectly teaching them not to judge a book by its cover,” she said.
Sometimes, however, the education is more direct. “It’s okay to ask questions,” Ginny said. “We often see a child in a grocery store ask their mom ‘How come she's so short?’ Often the parent will yank the pointing arm nearly out of its socket, and run away hoping they won’t run into us ever again.”
Ginny encourages parents to use such moments to acknowledge that the little person does look different, but then point out how the person is the same as everyone else because he or she is shopping or going to school or walking downtown.
"The parent should then make eye contact with the little person,” Ginny said, “and see if the person has time to answer any questions.”
Over the years, Ginny and Joe have answered many questions: Can dwarf couples become the parents of average-size children? Is dwarfism a disability? Has the gene that causes dwarfism been discovered? What do dwarfs think about such films as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?”
For readers interested in answers, the Fooses recommend going online to LPA’s website at www.lpaonline.org
One question that often comes up is whether “midget” is an appropriate term for a dwarf: “Back in the days of vaudeville, midget was synonymous with clown,” said Ginny. “Today the term is considered derogatory since little people work in all segments of society, including as doctors, lawyers, sports announcers, teachers, business people—really in every walk of life.”
13-year-old Alex Foos showed me several magic tricks. Notice his t-shirt. The caption reads: "Annoying My Parents: Just one more service I provide."