David Clensy meets the Portishead teenager who is keen to prove that dwarfism is not going to keep her down...
Being a teenager is never easy, but when you’re almost two foot shorter than your classmates, teenage angst could reach a new low. But one Portishead girl is proving that dwarfism is not going to stop her reaching for her goals in life.
She may stand at just 3ft 9ins, but 13-year-old Danielle Webb is standing tall in the face of her condition.
As the eyes of the sporting world turn to the extraordinary display of paralympians who have overcome their disabilities to compete on the world stage, Danielle is simply focused on living an ordinary happy teenage life.
“I don’t really think of my condition as being a disability,” she says. “I only really think about the fact that I’m a little person when I come up against a problem – like getting ignored in the queue at McDonalds because the staff can’t see me below the counter, or trying to reach anything in a supermarket that isn’t on the first or second shelf.
“But generally I try to live a normal life. I don’t sit here worrying about my dwarfism – the only time I can remember being sad about it was when it was time for the Year Six school prom – all the other girls were going out buying dresses to wear at the prom, but I knew I couldn’t go because none of them would fit me.”
Danielle was born with a condition called achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism that means the bones in Danielle’s arms and legs do not grow at the usual rate.
Single mum Michelle says it was initially a lot for her to get her head around.
“I didn’t even know I was carrying Danielle until I was six months pregnant – she was so tiny, I just didn’t have a bump,” Michelle says.
“But when I had the scan the consultant told me he was almost certain the baby had the condition.
“Danielle was then born five weeks early, so actually I really didn’t have much time to get my head around it all. But when she was born, I decided I wouldn’t let the condition get me down, I wouldn’t think of it as a disability – it would just be a series of challenges, and we would overcome each individual challenge together as it came up.
“In fact, Danielle wasn’t really aware she was different to other children until she was around seven years old, when she started to notice that some of the reception class children coming into the school were already taller than her.”
But Danielle says she has become accustomed to receiving unpleasant attention in the street.
“Lots of people stare,” she says, “some point and a few even laugh. I know this is probably because they haven’t seen someone with my condition before but that doesn’t make it any easier. I wish they would come up and say ‘hi’ instead of staring, perhaps then they will realise that even though I look different I am actually just the same as everyone else.”
But Danielle never suffered any real bullying until she arrived at secondary school – and then it didn’t last long. She is now happily a part of the community of students at Gordano High School.
“There was a bit of bullying at first,” she says. “But it was more that I was a novelty – the other children had never known a dwarf before, and more than anything they didn’t know how to treat me.
“Although I suffered a little bit of bullying from the boys, it was never particularly cruel, and sometimes it was the girls that were the bigger problem, by going too far the other way – some of the girls tried to mother me and made a bit too much of the idea of looking after me, just because I was smaller.”
Since then, Danielle says things have settled down.
“The school is brilliant,” she says. “They have added extra low handles on the doors for me, got a low-level science lab stool for me, and even bought special light-weight gym equipment for me to use.
“I’m particularly keen on cookery, and the school has actually built a special low level kitchen area where I can do my cooking.”
But accidents do still happen, Danielle admits. “Sometimes things happen just because people haven’t spotted you’re there – you can be out of people’s eyeline. For example, last year I was cooking at school and somebody opened an oven door and walked into me, burning me with a hot oven tray. But you have to accept that accidents will happen once in a while.”
Danielle is keen to work with animals, and plans to study hard to become either a vet or a zoo keeper.
“I don’t see why my height should stop me doing what I want in life,” she says.
After joining secondary school Danielle began to feel drawn to finding friends who understood what she is going through.
“I’d never really been interested in finding other little people before,” she says. “But I started to feel it would be nice to be able to sit and chat to people who have been through the same experiences.”
Danielle discovered Little People UK, a new national support group, launched by dwarf actor Warwick Davis.
“It only started in January, and mum and I went to London to meet Warwick and some of the other members,” Danielle says. “I was nervous about meeting Warwick – I knew him from Life’s Too Short on the television and the Harry Potter films.
“But actually, when I met him he didn’t act like a celebrity – he was lovely, and I could talk with him and the other members about the daily challenges of being a little person.”
Michelle adds: “It was great for Danielle to get to spend time with older people who had similar conditions.
“She met grown women who hadn’t allowed their dwarfism get in the way of having successful careers or raising a family.”
Danielle was so impressed by the support group, she and mum Michelle, are now planning to launch a Bristol branch of the organisation.
“I don’t know any other little people in Portishead, or even in Bristol – the nearest little person I know is in South Wales. So it would be good to find others locally who have gone through similar situations.”
Danielle and Michelle are hoping to plan social events for the group, and they have already lined up a fundraising family fun day for next month.
The event, at Clarence House social club, Portishead, on Sunday, September 16, from 11am to 4pm, will be an opportunity for people to make a donation towards the new support group by making a purchase from one of the stalls. Admission is free.
Local businesses wishing to support the event by providing raffle prizes, and anyone wanting information about joining the new support group should contact Michelle on 07944 593054 or email michelle@leo designs.co.uk.