Lissette Ference knows that people stare at her in the grocery store, and at the car dealership, and in all the other public places where she goes about her life.
She has heard the whispers, and felt the fixed looks of those who are curious about the four-foot-one-inch-tall single mother and her two children, who also are dwarfs.
But that doesn’t really bother her.
Ference, 51, just hopes that people don’t avert their eyes, or hide their children, or act in any way that denies her dignity or the credo by which she lives.
“I can do everything you can probably do,’’ she says, “but it takes me a little bit longer.’’
Determination is a trait that Ference learned early as the youngest child in an otherwise average-sized family with no history of dwarfism.
Ference says she grew up doing all the same things that other children did, and being treated as an equal.
She did chores around the house, attended public schools and played with a circle of friends.
“I wasn’t pampered,’’ she says. “If my brother got a bike, I got a bike.’’
Her father taught her to be self-sufficient, Ference says, and she teaches the same to her children, Zachary, 16, and Alannah, 12, both of whom are diagnosed with achondroplasia, a hereditary condition that causes dwarfism.
“It’s all genetic,’’ Ference says of achondroplasia, adding that there are about 250 different types of dwarfism.
The children’s father, from whom Ference is now divorced, also is achondroplastic, she said.
Ference, however, is not. She said her condition is “pseudo-achondroplasia,’’ and that she carries a recessive gene for dwarfism that was not inherited.
“It appears as a mutation,’’ she said, “a fluke.’’
Achondroplasia is a type of skeletal deformity, and those diagnosed with the condition typically have normal torsos. But the long bones from the hip to the ankle and the shoulder to the wrist are stunted.
Ference is 4-feet-1-inch tall, and weighs 80 pounds. Zachary is 4-feet-tall and also weighs 80 pounds. Alannah is 3-feet-tall and weighs 45 pounds.
They all have undergone numerous skeletal surgeries because of their conditions, and in the future will need more.
The Ferences typically have their surgeries performed at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, which has a center specializing in the treatment of skeletal dysplasias.
And though Ference has health insurance through her employer, American Express, where she’s a technical writer, she estimates that her annual out-of-pocket costs for the family’s medical care range from $10,000 to $15,000 a year.
In April, Ference had her second total hip replacement surgery due to her condition, which also has required physicians to fuse the top two vertebrae in her spine because the bone was deteriorating.
Alannah, a seventh-grader at Indian Ridge Middle School in Davie, has had two surgeries to correct a protruding jaw, and she also will need surgery to straighten her legs, Ference says.
Last year, Zachary had two surgical procedures known as an osteotomy to straighten his legs, which had bowed as a result of his condition.
Zachary recovered with casts on both legs up to his thigh, and attended his first four months as a freshman at Davie’s Western High School in a wheelchair.
Now a sophomore, Zachary is a starting second baseman on the junior varsity baseball team.
Pictures of Zachary in his baseball uniforms from about the age of 4 to the present adorn the refrigerator in the kitchen of the Ference family’s townhouse in Davie.
He says trying out for the high school baseball team was something he set his mind to, and that he didn’t let anything deter him.
“I just ignored that I’m short,’’ he says, “and I just played through it.’’
The Ferences are determined to be independent, and it’s the one condition Ference says she needs to be happy.
But there are times when she must rely on others for help, like when she’s at the grocery store and cannot reach something on a shelf.
“You have to swallow your pride and do it,’’ she said. “You want to eat and you have to get that cereal box that’s at the top of the shelf. So you ask people.’’
This holiday, the Ference family’s wish is to have their kitchen cabinets modified for their height.
Ference started to remodel her kitchen a few years ago, but said she stopped when her medical bills and legal bills from the divorce became too much.
The kitchen sink and counter were the only furniture modified, and they stand about 2½- to 3-feet-high. The rest of the kitchen is average size.
Ference bought a modified oven and a stove, but they’re sitting in the living room as she waits to have them installed after the cabinets are finished.
Like most families with achondroplasia, the Ferences keep step stools around the house.
There’s also a raised platform in the kitchen in front of the stove, though Ference’s hands still cannot reach the knobs at the back of the appliance. So she uses a two-foot-long broom handle with a notch carved into it to turn the knobs.
“You find ways to work around problems,’’ she says. “It becomes a way of thought.’’
Since her hip replacement surgeries, though, Ference walks with a cane, making it difficult to keep her balance on a step stool.
While her children are able and eager to help whenever she needs cooking supplies from the cabinets, Ference said she worries about their safety because they usually ignore the tools and climb atop the counter.
Ference says it’s not easy asking for help when you’ve spent your life determined to be treated like everyone else, and teaching your children to do the same.
“I think the lesson has been taught,’’ she says, “in the respect that I wanted them to learn that when they go out to the world, they’re going to have to adapt.’’
Inside their home, though, Ference is trying to build an environment — including a kitchen — more suited to the family’s needs.
There will be times when they need such sanctuary in a world where many may be unfamiliar with or indifferent to the challenges of being a little person, as Ference often refers to herself.
“There are people who are going to stare,’’ she says. “There are people who are going to treat you differently. You are different.
“So you either accept it and learn how to deal with these individuals in a positive way, or you just hide in your room,’’ Ference says. “It all boils down to how much you like yourself, and how you want others to see who you really are.’’