Amy Roloff — Cruising for a Cause

Circa 2010

As the big-hearted matriarch on The Learning Channel’s Little People, Big World, Amy Roloff navigates all of the responsibilities and challenges of raising a family while continuing to earn a slew of fans in the process. In addition to being a reality television star, Roloff is a soccer coach, a pre-school teacher and a philantrophist whose Amy Roloff Charity Foundation makes full use of her celebrity by benefitting people in need. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper caught up with Roloff to talk about her involvement with the Royal Carribbean celebrity cruise, her life in front of the camera, and her favorite job: being a mom.

Chet Cooper: Today we’re sitting onboard the Queen Mary, but I know you’re also going to be on another ship soon.

Amy Roloff: That’s right. It’s part of the Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Sea. Royal Carribbean had given away an auction package for a major golf and dinner event that I put on last year, so I’m going on a celebrity cruise, and part of each reservation on the cruise will go to benefit my foundation, the Amy Roloff Charity Foundation. It supports kids, at-risk youth and disability groups.

Cooper: How long has your foundation been around?

Roloff: About a year now. Through the opportunities and advantages that I’ve had in the last five or six years, I figured it was time to give back to all of the things that are important to me. One of those things has been the Dwarf Athletic Association of America (DAAA), which I happen to be very familiar with. But I also help fund an organization for foster care parents and for the kids they adopt, as well as for people in low-income senior housing.

We’ve also supported a family homeless shelter, which is one of only a few in the Portland area that brings in the whole family instead of dividing them up.

Cooper: You’ve got a lot going on in your life and yet you still have time to be on TV. Tell me about your show, Little People, Big World. How did that all come about?

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Roloff: The Learning Channel (TLC) came to us about five or six years ago, and so we suddenly realized we were given a great opportunity to educate people about dwarfism. When it was offered that we do a show about our lives, my husband and I were like, “Wow, nothing like this has even been on the air.” Nothing had depicted dwarfism in an everyday way. Lo and behold, a few episodes turned into six seasons. And here we are.

Cooper: Has being on the show changed you at all? Does it change how you see your disability?

Roloff: I think I’ve gotten to know myself a little bit better, actually, and all the opportunities that I’m more than able to do. Exposing your life to millions of people, especially as a parent, is a daunting thing to begin with. But I think this very public experience has helped each member of my family grow. I think it’s strengthened us so that we recognize our flaws and the best parts about ourselves.

But in the end, I think the biggest change is in the general perception people have of dwarfism and how people approach me. They’ve gotten to hear my story on the show, and I in turn am able to hear their stories because they feel like they know me before they’ve even met me. In some ways that’s very humbling. We each have our challenges, but someone always has a challenge that is uniquely different from, and maybe even more challenging than, yours. So the show has been a great experience of getting outside of our boxes and looking at other people and the things they’re going through and how maybe we’ve helped them or inspired them.

Cooper: Are there any examples? Experiences where you’ve made those kinds of connections?

Roloff: Oh, sure. I mean, just as I was going through the airport, this security guard came up to me and said, “You know what? I am so thrilled to have met you. You helped my wife and I through something we didn’t even know was going to happen.” They had found out that they were going to have a dwarf child, a dwarf baby. So just the experience of having watched our show encouraged them and inspired them. It gave them hope, and it didn’t create this sense of the unknown for them. They were having a baby, it happened to have dwarfism, but through our show, they were also able to see adults who were dwarfs. So it gave some dimension to their expectations. It got them thinking, “You know what? My child’s going to be okay. He’ll be able to be whatever he wants.”

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Cooper: It’s a boy?

Roloff: I believe it is, yes. A boy about 19 months old. And that kind of connection with this stranger was inspiring to me because often as a parent you’re in your own environment, you’re with your own family, and you forget that regardless of what you do, you can still be inspiring.

I remember another incident, this time at the beach, when a woman came up to me and told me that she had gone through some really heavy medical issues for about a month. She had gone in for a surgery and then doctors had found something else wrong with her and so she had to have a second surgery. But she watched our show, and by watching our show she felt inspired, and that got her through the surgery. It took her mind off of all of the stuff that she was going through medically. And in turn, I told her about my foundation and what I was hoping to do by utilizing the opportunities that I had been given in order to help other people. Right then and there this woman wrote a very significant check for the Foundation.

Cooper: Can you give me her email address? (laughs)

Roloff: (laughs) Never would I have thought that I could be as inspiring or that my family could be as inspiring through the show as we apparently have been. In the emails people send us, some people think we’re great, some people think we’re not so great. But I think in the long run it’s been wonderful, because I’ve been able to start my own charity foundation, to look beyond myself, and to help out some kids.

Cooper: Have you thought of tying any of the non-profit work into the television show itself?

Roloff: The show actually incorporated my first major non-profit event, which was the golf and dinner. So that’ll show up in season five, as well as all the dramatics that led up to that event and so forth. The sad thing is, I think too many people don’t think many people with challenges or disabilities are able to contribute to society in a truly significant way. I want to use whatever influence I have to help non-profits which don’t get the recognition they normally would but which are very significantly helping their local communities.

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I worked at a Habitat for Humanity site with my kids, and that was quite an experience. I’ve got average-sized kids and a younger son who is a dwarf like myself, but my own mindset going into this was, “What am I going to do? What am I capable of doing to help this process happen?” I mean, I knew what my average-sized son could do. He and another gentleman, who was probably one of the contractors there, set a goal to put the whole roof on in two days. He was bound and determined. And he’s built and physical.

But then I thought about my youngest son, my dwarf son. What would he be able to do? Sure enough, he found a niche where he helped put in all the lower windows. And me, I climbed up a ladder and put all the braces up on the sheet rock. We each found our niche, because we each had different capabilities.

Cooper: That must’ve felt great.

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Roloff: It is empowering. In your mind you know you can do it, but you just don’t know how to go about doing it, or maybe someone has never given you that opportunity. That’s why I’ve spoken to a lot of high-risk youth and pregnant teenagers, trying to reach them at a point where they’ve had so many people telling them, “you can’t.” And even if you’re able-bodied, a lot of people will tell you, “you can’t.” But whoever you are, you’ve got to figure out who you are and what you’re capable of doing.

For many people with disabilities, it’s a struggle sometimes each and every day just to do the basics. But once you get that empowerment of going beyond just the basics, it’s as if a whole world opens up for you. And that’s what DAAA did for me. Just the experience of playing sports—I couldn’t imagine. All of a sudden, I finally realized what my brother loved about sports, what so many guys love about sports. And then I found out, “Oh, my God, I’m too competitive sometimes!”

Cooper: Well, that sort of thing makes for good television.

Roloff: (laughs) It does. Ever since we started the show, which has now been a part of my life for the last six years, I’ve done some crazy stuff. Little stuff, but crazy enough for public. But listen, before the show, being an at-home mom for the majority of my time, my world is my four kids. You become very protective of that reality. Your world is sporting events, parents’ groups, and stuff like that. The television thing has kind of broadened my universe. I went scuba diving in Las Vegas. I’ve eaten grub worms. Silly stuff like that.

Cooper: How many cruises have you been on?

Roloff: This one in June will be my fourth. And to me, it’s fabulous. These cruise ships create great experiences for someone with a disability because everything is contained. You’re not on and off and stopping and going. You can choose to go on the port of call or not. They have everything on these ships.

Cooper: I went on a cruise for a group of deaf and hard of hearing. There were more than 3,000 people on the ship. I don’t sign, so it was interesting to experience being the odd person out. I had to figure out how to navigate not only ALS (American Sign Lanuage) but international sign lanuages too.

Roloff: Isn’t that funny? You would think that sign language would be universal and all the same.

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Cooper: And Royal Caribbean had actually prepared for a year in advance so that their staff all knew basic sign language and represented something like 70 different countries.

Roloff: When my husband and I went on our inaugural cruise, I had to be pretty prepared to discuss our dwarfism. I am, gratefully, very able as a dwarf person. I’m married to a guy who has to walk on crutches and use a scooter, and I know a lot of other dwarf people who have multiple medical issues. But to have the freedom of just setting sail, especially when you’re on vacation and you’re spending your time and financial resources, is no small thing. So sometimes you have to help the staff understand that what they do isn’t always going to be useful to a short person. For example, if I go through a buffet line but the counter is way up above me, I think, “Hello?”

At the same time, you don’t want to stop the staff’s flow of how they deal with all of these people on the ship. You just hope that somebody is in tune with you, that the organization knows what it is doing. The employees should say, “Okay, we’ve got to make a slight adjustment. Very minor, but something that would make it easier and make shorter people feel comfortable.” A lot of it might just come down to pre-communication, ensuring that things are laid out smartly ahead of time.

Cooper: On the subject of adjustments, do you use hand controls to drive your car?

Roloff: No. I am fortunate enough that I have pedal extensions on my car that sort of raise the pedals to me. I’ve never driven with hand controls in my entire life, except for in driver’s ed. That was an experience—a lot of driving up on curbs.

Cooper: This next cruise ship you’re going on, The Oasis of the High Seas, is apparently almost double the size of the Queen Mary in respect to passenger capacity. That’ll be interesting to get around.

Roloff: Yes, we went on it on the inaugural cruise back in November. What I really liked about the ship was that it gives you the comfortable sense of having different neighborhoods right there on the ship. I mean, at Central Park, there are all these plants and flowers, and you actually feel like you’re in a park. You forget entirely that you’re actually on a moving ship. They’ve got different restaurants and a couple of shops here and there and park benches to sit on. It’s just great.

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Cooper: Will you be going SCUBA diving again this time?

Roloff: You know, I think they may have SCUBA diving lessons there, yeah. I know the ship has this very deep pool, this entertainment aquatic area where a bunch of shows are put on with divers. They’ve got some great programs on the ship.

Cooper: I was told that you went rock climbing on one of these cruises, and that your harness wasn’t zipped closed. Is that true?

Roloff: Absolutely. I had to make it exciting, right? I’ve also done ziplining, which was pretty hard, and flow riding, which is kind of a boogie board thing. There’s a lot of great stuff to do on these cruises. I think on the next cruise we have a couple getting married who signed up through my charity foundation. We’ve even got a comedy club on these ships, so I actually went up on the stage and did a couple of bits.

Cooper: You’ve done stand-up?

Roloff: No, but the comedian I was up there with was awesome, so we just kind of bantered back and forth a little bit. It was fun.

Cooper: What do you think about political correctness as it relates to dwarfism and how people treat people with disabilities?

Roloff: Oh, that political correctness thing. You know, I think we’ve become too politically correct, so I don’t get too offended if someone doesn’t use the right terminology. Because, for the most part, the reason is a lack of understanding. If someone is using these terms in a negative way, you can usually tell. In my own life, I use terms like “little person,” “dwarf,” “short-statured.” That’s it.

The other word that has caused a lot of negativity is the word “midget,” but I think a lot of that has something to do with the tone and the connotation and the meanings that people have put behind that word today, because that was not always the case. The organization Little People of America was first named Midgets of America by Billy Barty. At the time, that might have been a palatable term and word, but because time has passed, that is not a word to use or describe dwarfism. It’s “short-statured” or “little person.”

Cooper: That seems easy enough.

Roloff: Yeah. But I don’t get too concerned with what people call me. It rolls off my shoulders. I’m just out there trying to let people know that, regardless of any disability, they have a lot more ability than they typically think. Sometimes you have to make your own opportunity and not wait for someone else to give it to you.

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