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Profiles in Excellence.

Big Opportunities - Little People, Big World TV Show

By Joan Leotta

Photo of the Roloff family.The Roloff family from TLC's TV series 'Little People Big World' on the steps of their family home situated on their 34-acre farm in Oregon.
Photo courtesy Daniel Hennessy/TLC

Finding inventive solutions in a world designed for people without disabilities makes each day a reality adventure for people with disabilities. The Learning Channel (TLC) has packaged that adventure into a reality-style television show featuring a couple with dwarfism, Matt and Amy Roloff, and their four children, one of whom, Zach, is also a little person. The show, "Little People, Big World," premiered to critical and community acclaim in March 2006 and started a second season in October 2006. On April 9, with a new time slot of 8:00 PM on Monday nights, the latest season of "Little People, Big World" will begin.

Brooke Runnette, the program's executive producer for TLC, says that the idea for the show developed when TLC decided to do some shows about family relationships. Gay Rosenthal Productions, a television production company, located the Roloffs. The family had had their television debut on a Discovery Channel special in 2004 called "Little People, Big Dreams." The special proved so positive that TLC decided to do a series. "They just struck us as a perfect example of an inspiring family," says Runnette. "We developed the series around them.

"Our research and focus groups have shown that viewers who have average abilities are incredibly inspired by the story of the Roloffs," Runnette continues. "Stories like theirs often make the ordinary challenges everyone faces seem both more real and more surmountable."

TLC's website notes that "television's reality rarely includes the daily struggles of life in a world to which the person with disabilities must always adapt." With "Little People, Big World," TLC exposes the challenges of living with disabilities to the rest of the world. For the Roloffs, everyday tasks such as driving a car, peering over a bank counter, or making a trip to the grocery store are made more difficult when things are designed for people one or two feet taller than they are. The show highlights how, for the Roloffs, "the tasks of daily living are magnified a hundredfold in difficulty, while you still face the same struggle of education, finding a job, doing the job, and raising a family."

But TLC did not set out to create a show that focuses on the negatives of disability. "Our goal is to first and foremost present a compelling story," says Runnette. "This series just happened to feature that (kind of story) in the context of a family consisting of both little people and average-height people."

Who Are the Roloffs?

Photo of Amy and Matt Roloff. Mom Amy and dad Matt Roloff have been married for 17 years. The couple appear along with their four children on TLC's series 'Little People Big World.' Photo courtesy Daniel Hennessy/TLC

In many ways, the Roloffs are an average family: a husband and wife raising four children and facing financial difficulties. In the Roloffs' case, finances were especially tight when Matt lost his job as a software programmer and the family focused on their "u-pick" peach and pumpkin farm and another side business. But in addition, the Roloffs face complications related to their physical stature.

Making Ends Meet

Matt Roloff, the father of the family, at four feet tall, is no stranger to media attention. Matt's dwarfism is the result of the third most common cause of short stature, diastrophic dysplasia. Because his condition affects bones and joints, he walks with the aid of crutches and often gets around with a motorized scooter.

Before the series began, Matt had served as president of the advocacy group Little People of America. He also authored the book Against Tall Odds, which chronicles his experiences with dwarfism (Multnomah Press, 1999). The proceeds from the book enabled the family to purchase a 34-acre plot just outside of Portland, Oregon that became Roloff Farms. (www.mattroloff.com)

Matt also worked as a software salesman to make ends meet. Now, together with wife Amy and the children, he focuses on Roloff Farms and on Direct Access Solutions (www.lp-access.com), a firm that markets products for the comfort and safety of little people as they stay in hotels. The company's products, available to hotels in a "Short Stature Accessibility Kit," include a custom stepstool with an easy-open handle, a grabber for reaching items on high shelves, a push-pull tool to control switches and buttons mounted high on walls, a closet adapter that provides a lower rod for hanging clothes, and a device that can latch security locks mounted high on a door frame.

Amy Roloff, also just four feet tall, was a stay-at-home mom for years but now holds down two outside jobs, helps with the farm and with Direct Access Solutions. In the past year, Matt also accepted a job within the software sales industry to provide more income for the family.

Family Life

Photo of the Roloff family. (l to r) Zach, Matt, Amy, Jacob, Molly and Jeremy Roloff on their 34-acre farm in Oregon. The family appears on TLC's hit series 'Little People Big World.'
Photo courtesy Daniel Hennessy/TLC

Matt and Amy have been married for twenty years and have four children: 16-year-old twins Jeremy and Zach, 13-year-old Molly, and 9-year-old Jacob. The drama of family life with teens has taken the show through sibling rivalry, first crushes, schoolwork, and dances. Zach and Jeremy are both involved with sports, and Jeremy also enjoys working with his dad on projects.

The family has also had its share of crises. In April 2005 Zach, the twin with dwarfism, underwent emergency surgery to repair a shunt he has in his brain. Again in January 2006, Zach had to have similar surgery.

Average-height Molly shares a birthday with her little-person mom, and one episode revolves around Matt's plans for their joint celebration. Molly, the only girl among three brothers, distinguishes herself as the best student in the house.

Jacob is a skilled soccer player and his mom, though shorter than many of the nine-year-olds on the team, is his coach.

The fishbowl effect of a camera peering into intimate family life during six months for ten hours a day has changed the life of this typical family. As a result of the show, thousands of people flocked to Roloff Farms during pumpkin season—so many that one weekend in October, the police had to close the farm to visitors.

That same month, the Roloffs experienced a tragic accident: Jacob and an adult neighbor were injured while operating a pumpkin catapult when they were struck in the head by falling concrete. The show's cameras were on the farm at the time, but not filming in the area where the accident occurred. Jacob has recovered, and the effects of the accident on the family are featured in the first episode of the new season.

How does the film crew capture the life of these six active family members? Says Runnette, "The challenges are mostly for Matt, who is of course both a little person and has to move around with the aid of crutches or a scooter—but still manages to exhaust the crew that has to follow him."

Feedback

Runnette notes that viewer response to "Little People, Big World" has been extremely positive. "The show's ratings are terrific," she says. But in addition to being entertaining, the show has also proved enlightening.

According to Runnette, people have written in to say that through watching the show they are developing a new understanding of the abilities of people with dwarfism.

"We hear all the time from families who say that the show has spurred discussion in their living room about what it means to be different, and that's incredibly gratifying," says Runnette.

"TLC and the Roloff family both receive tremendous response in the form of hundreds upon hundreds of emails from little people, people with disabilities, and the general public," she relates. "Almost to a one, the letters and emails call the show inspiring and thank the Roloffs for doing it. So do we."

Another positive outcome of the show has been that the Roloffs' Direct Access Solutions business has gained exposure, which may translate into more sales of Short Stature Accessibility Kits to hotels. In addition, Matt Roloff now hosts an interview show, available via video podcast from TLC's website (http://tlc.discovery.com/fansites/lpbw/mattschats/mattschats.html), where he chats with people inspiring to him. Past interviewees include Pam Danberg, an active member of the Dwarf Athletic Association of America, and Meredith Eaton, a clinical psychiatrist, little person, and actress with a recurring role on the TV series Boston Legal .

As for the future of "Little People, Big World," Runnette sums it up this way: "We (at TLC), along with viewers, hope the Roloffs will continue to let us into their lives for many years to come."

Edited by Mary-Louise Piner.

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