Tallness is rewarded on a practical level in everyday life and all types of routine daily interactions. The way many everyday things are designed simply does not fit well with bodies that are very short:
- Counters: the average counter height used in typical home kitchens and bathrooms is uncomfortably high for very short people
- Cabinets: kitchen cabinets are typically placed in a way that short people often have difficulty reaching any of the shelves above the first or second.
- Appliances: washers and refrigerators are not designed to accommodate very short people comfortably.
- Public transportation: in crowded buses and trains, the short riders tend to be squeezed between other people’s torsos and under their armpits, unable to reach the overhead handholds.
- Shelves: grocery store items displayed on the top shelf are difficult to reach without asking for assistance or attempting to balance precariously on the bottom shelf.
- Theaters: seats are not quite elevated enough for short people to be able to comfortably see the stage or movie screen when sitting behind someone, because everyone is taller.
- Amusement park rides: although height requirements exist for valid safety reasons, this nevertheless causes consternation for children who are shorter than their peers and who cannot join their taller friends.
- Airplanes: overhead compartments are too high to reach, requiring very short people to hoist heavy carry-on baggage way over their heads while balancing on their tippy toes.
- Tables and chairs: many are designed so that a short person’s feet dangle from the chair, like a child’s; or when the chair can be lowered, the table becomes uncomfortably high. This is usually not a big problem, but could be quite humiliating in a board room meeting or an office executive conference room where the perception of “executive presence” is a more valuable commodity than competence and intelligence.
The vertical challenges enumerated above are often trivial or inconvenient, but can be annoying and socially embarrassing, especially in a professional setting.
However, certain product design issues can pose serious safety concerns as well. Some products are designed in a way that increases risk of injury for short people. For example, the shortest drivers have difficulty seeing well over the steering wheel or reaching the pedals in many cars. Although it is possible to slide the driver seat forward in order to reach better, being too close to the steering wheel is considered dangerous in the event of an accident.
Most people know that air bags can hurt a child sitting in the front seat and for this reason, most people no longer permit children to sit in the front passenger seat. However, little attention is paid to how short adult drivers are affected by air bags. When air bags for cars were introduced in the early 1990s, there was debate on how fast they should deploy. Those who argued that the bag should deploy fast enough to protect unbelted occupants won the day. The force this requires is a problem for those under 5’5”, because the deployment of airbags, even when operating properly, can be too explosive for short people.
Given that the average woman in the United States is just under 5’4” (in other words, that means that more than fifty percent of all female drivers are shorter than what would be considered a safe height for air bag deployment), one would think that there would be laws in place to provide better protection, or the government would require a re-design of a feature intended to enhance safety so that it would provide the intended protection for short men and more than half of all female drivers.
Car and airbag manufacturers advise that by sitting at least 10 inches away from the steering wheel, this risk is reduced or even eliminated. However, they know very well that most very short people must sit closer than that in order to reach the pedals, and most people have never heard of this advice. Besides warnings to ensure that children and short people should sit in the back seat (how can I drive my car from the back seat?), car manufacturers are not even required to warn drivers about this hazard, and it remains largely unknown.