SEYMOUR, Ind. (AP) — When Jana Gray was 7, she attended her first Little People of America Inc. convention.
Born with achondroplasia dwarfism, one of the 200 types of dwarfism that can cause one's arms and legs to be shorter than average, Gray was encouraged by her average-height parents to attend the organization's events.
That exposure at a young age helped Gray understand she could do anything she wanted and spurred an interest to educate others about dwarfism.
Now 45, Gray supports Little People of America and its efforts to promote a better understanding and acceptance of dwarfs.
Little People of America is a national nonprofit organization that provides support and information to people of short stature and their families. It was started by Billy Barty in 1957 in Nevada with about 20 people. It now reaches hundreds across the nation.
Even with seven siblings, all average height, Gray said her parents made sure the events were never missed when she was growing up.
"My parents always marked off the second Saturday of the month because they knew that was when LPA was ... and nothing else was going to be scheduled that day," she told the Tribune (http://bit.ly/GZAN3N ).
The Seymour resident is now the president of the Little Hoosiers Chapter 24 of Little People of America. She strives to put the organization at the forefront for not only parents to involve their dwarf children but to also help average-height people become educated on dwarfism.
And as part of Dwarfism Awareness Month in October, Gray sells green bracelets to raise funds for the organization and updates her Facebook page with facts about dwarfism.
"If it wasn't for LPA, I wouldn't be the person I am today," Gray said.
From a young age, the organization gave her mentors to emulate, encouragement in everyday life and even friends who were bridesmaids in her wedding.
She recently helped organize a regional convention for Little People of America at the Clarion Hotel in Columbus. More than 125 attendees enjoyed the weekend activities, including a wine and canvass activity, dinner and a dance.
But the event also brought families and friends together to share fellowship and develop bonds with those who share similar traits.
"(They) realize that their child or themselves aren't alone in this world," Gray said. "There are other people with disadvantages like (them), and some are worse off."
Born and raised in Seymour, Gray is the administrative assistant at the Seymour Police Department. She's been with the department since 2001.
Her size plays no role in the performance of her duties, Police Chief Bill Abbott said. Her work is excellent, and she often triple-checks her work, he said. He joked that she makes sure he goes where he needs to be since she oversees his meeting schedule.
"Anything that I can ask her to do, she'll do it or find a way to do it," he said.
Growing up, Gray attended Seymour High School. She recalls her teen years as difficult. Back then, few were educated on dwarfism, and no one in her family, besides a distant cousin, had it. Besides her friends in Little People of America, finding someone to relate to her was difficult.
"My teen years weren't my favorite," she said. "Boyfriends don't want a 3-foot, 4-foot girlfriend that comes up to their hips.
"The girlfriends that are standing in a group talking, they're all about 5 feet tall. They don't want to get down on their knees; it's hard for them to include you in a conversation."
After high school, Gray took a job at the former Boron Stop 50 on East Tipton Street.
A co-worker there helped her to meet her future husband, Scott.
He lived in Florida, and Gray's co-worker would travel there during the winter. The co-worker spotted Scott Gray at the mall one day and soon introduced them to each other.
Scott Gray also is an achondroplasia dwarf and works as the security and support tech for Seymour Community Schools.
Jana Gray's strong, energetic personality was attractive to him, he said.
She introduced him to Little People of America. Although he isn't as involved with the group as his wife is, he supports her cause to educate others on dwarfism.
Promoting recognition of the differences among people improves their understanding of each other and erases the focus on their differences, Scott Gray said.
After the couple married, they lived between Sarasota and Fort Myers in Florida for more than five years. She worked for the Sarasota County School System.
Although she said she has had few obstacles at the Seymour Police Department besides needing a hand once in a while or using a step stool, Florida was more of a challenge because she did not know the community.
"I felt I had to prove myself there because no one knew me," she said.
Before moving to Seymour in 1995, the couple decided to expand their family.
With two achondroplasia dwarfs carrying the gene, it gave the Grays a 50 percent chance for their offspring to be a dwarf, 25 percent to be average height and the other 25 percent to result in a double dominant, which can lead to mental retardation or death.
The Grays, who have been married for 23 years, have two children: a daughter, Lindsey, who is an achondroplasia dwarf; and a son, Tyler, who is 6-foot-5. Both children graduated from Trinity Lutheran High School, were involved in a number of sports and went on to college.
With three members of their household being dwarfs and her son standing 6-5, the Grays rearranged their home a bit so everyone can comfortably reach items.
Some cabinets in the kitchen are very low, but a few are left higher for Tyler. Jana Gray jokes she hasn't seen him use the cabinets once, though.
"When Tyler comes home, he's a boy, so it doesn't matter because he doesn't cook anyway," she said with a laugh.
In comparison to Jana Gray's childhood, she said her daughter now lives in a society that has slowly grown more aware and more accepting of dwarfism. Lindsey Gray uses Facebook and Twitter to make others aware of dwarfism.
In addition, Dwarfism Awareness Month was not around when Jana Gray was growing up.
"I can see a big change from back when I was little," she said.
However, her daughter does and will face some of the same health problems.
Jana Gray has been on arthritis medication since her late 20s, and both she and her daughter have a shunt placed in the back of their heads to relieve excess fluid, or water on the brain, that most average height people don't have to worry with. Lindsey Gray received hers when she was 1, while her mother got hers when she was 20.
"Because we're so jam-packed, it needs to be done mechanically with a shunt," she explained.
Some with achondroplasia dwarfism rely on a shunt to rid the buildup of spinal fluid by dispersing it to other parts of the body.
But Jana Gray feels blessed for what she has. She has seen many people affected by different types of dwarfism at Little People of America conventions, some of whom use wheelchairs.
"I complain that I can't reach the top shelves on things," she said. "There are some people who cannot even walk."
With an empty nest at home, and her kids being former athletes, Jana and Scott Gray try to find time between their jobs and Little People of America to root on local teams at sporting events. They travel to away games any chance they get.
"We are total sports people," she said.
Jana Gray said she hopes that with Dwarfism Awareness Month, society can continue to become more educated about dwarfism. Even programs such as "Little People, Big World," a reality show on the TLC cable network about a couple with dwarfism who raise a family, can help change the perception some have of dwarfs.
"Typically, the general society sees someone that is different to the eye as someone that is not right or complete — and probably their mind isn't, either," Jana Gray said. "Dwarfism only affects the length of the limbs — not the mind. Many of 'us' are doctors, lawyers, teachers — or police chief's secretaries."
Information from: The (Seymour) Tribune, http://www.tribtown.com