Ask college sophomore Rebekah Wood how it feels to be little and she'll give you a curious look.
"I don't know because I've been small all of my life. It's always been there. I don't know anything else."With big brown eyes, shiny shoulder-length dark hair and a huge friendly smile, 20-year-old Wood stands 3 feet 9 inches tall, proud to be who she is: a Broadway showgirl, a BYU coed, a bride-to-be, a big sister and, oh yeah, a "little person."
Kari and Kristy Suojanen are the classic BYU love story.
He was a returned missionary. She was living and working in Provo when a friend arranged a blind date for her with Kari. They married shortly thereafter, have four children and live in north Utah County.
What's unusual about the Suojanens is they are each only 4 feet tall. The Suojanens and Wood are part of the group of Americans known as "little people" or "disproportionate people of short stature."
Kari Suojanen is the newly elected president of the Utah chapter of Little People of America.
His stature is a genetic inheritance from his Finnish ancestors. His wife is the daughter of two parents who were diagnosed with achondroplasia - a disorder in which the bones of the arms and legs fail to grow to normal size due to a defect in both cartilage and bone.
All the medical jargon aside, they want people to know that they live, love and raise their families much the same as anyone else. They're simply smaller.
"We have potential. It's all up to the individual," Kari Suojanen said. "I was taught not to expect favoritism, and I think it's made me stronger."
Wood's little sister, Olivia, is 31 inches tall, 5 years old and wears 9-12-month-size rompers.
Both are the daughters of Bev and Chad Wood of Orem.
"We were just `lucky' with Rebekah. If you're going to have a birth defect, this is a good one," said Bev Wood, who has three average-size children in addition to Rebekah. "We had to go to Romania to get Olivia from an orphanage."
"I probably noticed in preschool I was different and elementary school. I think I realized a difference, and I think I probably asked my mom about it. I think she said I would always be a little different but it would be all right," Rebekah Wood said. "And it's been fine.
"In junior high, that was a little harder just because it's hard for any teenager. You're trying so hard to fit in. When I got into high school, that was fun. I was really involved, and I had some really good friends. I didn't date, but I wasn't unhappy."
Along the way, Wood had a friend in Sandy who was also little. "That was a big help because I wasn't the only one. I could talk about how things were."
She's also participated in the Little People of America annual conferences for most of her life. Her parents helped charter a Utah chapter that still exists today. She met her fiancee at a conference in Denver and discovered that little people who want to can participate in just about everything average-size people do.
For instance, Wood skis and river rafts and drives her own car. She attends BYU and figures she's entitled to all life has to offer, despite her short stature.
The varieties of diagnosed disorders resulting in extreme shortness number around 200.
"The biggest problem and most common symptom is skeletal," Kari Suojanen explained. "I have two artificial hips, an artificial knee and problems with my ankles. Joint problems are common with little people."
In his hometown of Reno, Nev., he was the only little person he knew of. "The only little people I'd seen were in a circus. Kristy was the second little person I'd ever met."
He estimates there are only 30 to 40 little people in Utah today. The Suojanens have participated in the state Little People of America organization for a number of years and figure they have a lot of educating to do, both with average-size people and little people.
"We see people when they first have a `little' baby, and then we often don't see them again until the child reaches dating age. That seems to be when they realize they need answers and support."
The population is increasing in the state as Utah becomes more of a magnet for movie companies. There is a demand for adult little people in the TV and movie industry.
"That's the biggest occupation for little people," he said. "That's why so many live in California and why there are starting to be more now in Utah."
Suojanen has worked in a couple of movies as a stand-in for a child actor. His wife has done several movies.
But in his everyday life, he teaches special education at the Dan W. Peterson school for handicapped in American Fork. His wife is an instructional assistant at the same school.
Wood is engaged to be married in August and plans to have her own family someday. She realizes that little women always have to deliver their babies through Caesarean section.
"It'll be a high-risk pregnancy for sure," she said. "But I'll manage."
This past Christmas, she left school for a three-month stint in the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. She sang, danced and earned enough money as the Christmas elf "Tannenbaum" in the Toy Fantasy segment to pay for considerably more schooling.
Is she going to follow the footsteps of many dwarf actors into showbiz as a career? "I don't know. They want me to do the Wizard of Oz, but I have school, and that's a six-month run. I might go back next year, because it was fun, but it's nothing I can rely on."
Wood feels she can rely on a degree in recreational therapy. She's appreciated recreational therapists who've helped her and wants to pass the feeling on to others.
"I had a class called Unified Studies in high school that gave you challenges. I learned to cross-country ski, and we did a survival hike. That one class taught me a lot about myself and what I could do."
Skiing actually is ideal for little people because their center of gravity is lower, she said. "When we ski, getting on the lift is always interesting. The lift operators aren't sure what to do with a whole group of little people."
Once on, getting off is another challenge. As the lift slows, the little people just jump, says Wood. "Then we bounce."
Kari Soujanen is adamant about being treated as much like an average-size person as possible. He doesn't want any "breaks" because he's small.
"We're considered one of the disabled groups, but I don't think we should be. We can do what we want to do. I've never asked for a dime from American Disabilities Act, even for a parking stall. I'll come a half hour early to get a place close to the entrance."
He and the little people organizations push education because, "Let's face it, we can't dig ditches!"
He has two degrees, one in business management and another in special education. He served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among the Indian tribes in New Mexico and Arizona.
He and Kristy are parents to three 6-foot sons and Jayme, an adopted Korean achondroplastic daughter who is now 14.
They're also foster parents. They've raised dogs, sold NeoLife products and manage several rental properties.
He and Kristy have just built a new home in Cedar Hills that is specially adapted to their small size. The counters are lower. The stairs are more shallow than most. The cabinets have been dropped. The stove doesn't have a drawer beneath it. The hot tub is sunk into the deck without a lip that has to be climbed over. The light switches are not positioned as high. The thermostat is within reach.
"It's amazing what a difference three inches can make," Kari Suojanen said.
"I've always held a job. I've never found (my shorter size) to be a problem, although I did mow lawns for a while, and those old clippers were not for these fingers."
He has a bit of a problem buying clothes. Most of what he purchases has to be recut and altered. He can't find any coats in a ready-made size. He says he can't worry a whole lot about making a fashion statement.
"Obviously there are clothing problems that aren't so difficult when you are younger. It gets harder as you get older, heavier and wider. For me, there's virtually nothing off the rack.
"My daughter's just getting to the age where it's going to start to be tough for her," he said.
Her father doesn't allow her to dwell on it, however. He believes in emphasizing the positive. "We can adapt. Little people can fly planes. One in Denver races cars. I think the key to us is kind of like with everybody else. If you make things too easy, you can actually hinder growth. If we just remember, we're just like everybody else inside."
Kristy Suojanen agrees. "There needs to be a balance between the extremes," she said. "You don't want to make too big a deal out of it, but on the other hand there are some things you need like drinking fountains you can reach."
"We can accomplish anything," Kari Suojanen added. "It's just that every once in a while, you have to prove you can do it better, whatever it is."
Wood says the hardest part of doing the things she likes is convincing others it's OK to be a little person.
She doesn't mind that people stare. And she doesn't mind questions about her height or lack of it.
What she does mind are people who look past her as if she isn't there or parents who scold their children for being curious.
At a recent local bridal fair, vendor operators tended to ignore Wood and direct their questions to her mother. "I guess a lot of people think I'm younger, but it made me so mad," she said. "My mom had to keep telling them, `She's the bride, ask her.' "
"A lot of times, people will just come up and ask a question. I like that. It's better than when parents grab their kids and shoo them away."
Wood has had to have some special attention to her health and particularly her spine curvature, since little people with her disorder have average size organs squeezed into a much smaller body than average people.
But she minimizes the differences in her life.
She doesn't mind having to buy two sets of college textbooks, because they're too heavy for her to carry around. And it's OK to be called for theatrical parts that specifically require a tiny person, she says.
Wood is also thrilled to have a little sister who seems to instinctively realize she and her older sister are the same. "She calls us, `pushed-down people.'
"She's my baby. I think she knows she's like me. We have a real bond," Wood says, ruffling Olivia's hair as Olivia cuddles up beside her.
She's comfortable with buying most of her clothes at Kids Gap ("It's cheaper!") and isn't overly worried about her future, although she and her future husband have a 50/50 chance of creating children with achondroplasia, an average-size baby or a "double dominant" child who will die.
She's optimistic, upbeat and looking forward to a future full of promise.
"I just plan to be happy in life like anyone else," she said.
Things little people hate average-size people to do:
- Sizing their hand up with yours.
- Picking you up for no apparent reason.
- Calling you a midget.
- Asking, "Were you always that small?"
- Sitting in front of you in the movie theater.
- Talking about you as if you can't hear.
- Patting you on the head.
- Assuming you can't do something because you are small.
- Telling you how lucky you are because you can always go trick-or-treating.
Source: The Teen Little People of America Web site.