Small man, big heart

Riley Windeler has dwarfism, but is drawing on his experiences - good and bad - to work toward a career in social work. He wants other people to understand that while he looks different, he's the same inside as everyone else.

When you're from Horsefly, B.C., population about 1,000, there's an appeal to going to a smaller university to study.

Riley Windeler spent a semester at Okanagan College in Kelowna before coming to Kamloops and Thompson Rivers University in January.

He liked the smaller campus and the smaller city that came with it. But in his entire four months studying at TRU, he never saw anyone like himself.

Windeler, 22, is a little person. Born with hypochondroplasia dwarfism, he grew up in a community where everyone knew everyone - acceptance was pretty easy.

"I'm perfectly healthy, just shorter stature," he said. His diagnosis means he has a larger head and shorter arms, legs and spine. He has a slight bow to his arms and legs, but not as pronounced as with some other types of dwarfism.

He was diagnosed at a young age, although it was in high school when his dwarfism became most obvious, and perhaps most challenging. It's a time when teenagers want to fit in and be part of the crowd, not teased or called names.

Windeler knew there was nothing he could do about his height. He learned to focus on those who accepted him and ignore those who didn't.

"I had my friends, people who supported me for who I was," he said.

He has made adaptations for his height; he has extra-thick pedals in his car and sometimes needs help reaching items on high shelves. He knows who his friends are, ignores detractors and keeps a positive outlook.

It makes him confident and open, willing to answer questions about his dwarfism for those who are curious or children who don't understand.

Windeler has encountered discrimination, but he keeps a positive attitude and doesn't let it drag him down.

Take, for example, his attempts at landing work at a sawmill in Williams Lake. He had a good background, having worked at the family forestry business in Horsefly.

He submitted his resume, in person, a few times and didn't get a response, despite lesser-qualified people getting hired on. He even asked if his height (four feet six inches) was a problem and was told no.

So Windeler submitted his resume by email and was called for an interview a week later.

He had the interview, and never heard from the company again.

That was a year ago. Since then, Windeler took one semester of environmental studies at Okanagan University, then transferred into the human service program (social work) at TRU.

He's a big advocate for people with dwarfism: he has attended the annual Little People of America conference in the U.S. several times, where he even got included in the TV show Little People, Big World.

Windeler said that program helped dispel myths and ignorance about little people in the first years, including facts and information about dwarfism.

Of late, however, it's become more focused on the featured family's vacations and other activities.

After arriving in Kamloops, he approached some schools and spoke to students about dwarfism. He took three coloured apples with him: a yellow, a green and a red.

Then he peeled them, mixed them up and asked the students to tell him which was which.

"It's important for people to know those with differences are all the same inside," he said.

In four months at TRU, he didn't see any other little people on campus. But that won't stop him from returning in fall to continue his studies.

Windeler likes helping people, and it's something he wants to do as a career. He believes he has some understanding to offer from the experiences he has had being who he is.

"The biggest thing for people to know, not just with little people but anyone with a difference, is we're all the same," he said.

After wrapping up his classes and exams, he planned to head back to Horsefly and touch base with family before going to Alberta to work at an RV park in Kananaskis for the summer. And yes, his employer knows about his height.

"It's made me realize people do have differences. It's made me a better person, I think," he said.

"We only have one life to live. Make the best of it."

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