My Life In Short
As a kid, Ian Fulton felt the odds were stacked against him. Then, at 15, something changed, giving him a ticket into an amazing new world
I was born on 7 April 1964, in Launceston, Tasmania. At that time The Beatles were riding high on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and The Pink Panther, starring Peter Sellers, was making people laugh at the movies.
My entry into the world was without incident. Mum’s contractions began around midnight the night before her due date. After opening Mum’s door and guiding her through the entrance and into the trusted hands of the nursing staff, Dad was told ever so politely, “We’ll take it from here, Mr Fulton.” Dutifully, Dad went back home to look after my siblings. Mine was an easy birth—at least that’s what Mum tells me. When she saw me for the first time, Mum thought I was on the chubby side but just “gorgeous” (her words, not mine). Her only concern, if anything, was the size of my head. Perhaps it was rather big—certainly, it was bigger than she remembered with her other three children. But because Dr Sauer, her obstetrician, said nothing and didn’t appear to be worried, Mum didn’t give it a second thought. We later learnt that Dr Sauer was worried.
Throughout Mum’s pregnancy, which had been textbook, he had noted Mum’s smaller belly, and had suspected something wasn’t quite right. But without all the whiz-bang technology we have today—ultrasounds, amniocentesis, DNA testing—his concerns would remain nothing more than a hunch.
It’s true, I would have looked different to other babies on the ward. Babies born with my condition have a larger head, a more pronounced forehead and shorter arms and legs. But nothing was said by any of the medical staff, so as far as my Mum was concerned, I was a perfectly healthy baby weighing 4.1 kilograms.
Cradling me in her arms and staring into my tiny, chubby face, Mum knew instantly what she’d call me. “Ian … I think we’ll call you Ian,” she whispered, smiling. On the day Mum brought me home after her stint in hospital, Mark, Louise and Jill were waiting to meet me. They had absolutely no idea I’d been born with dwarfism and the possibility wouldn’t have crossed their minds. There was no known history of it in our family, although as I’ve since learnt there doesn’t have to be.
When they looked at me, what they saw was an adorable, chubby baby brother. “He’s so cute,” my sister remarked. Mark, older than me by 10 years, had already decided we’d be great mates.
Two weeks later, my parents went back to see Dr Sauer, who conducted a routine exam and then suggested that my parents make an appointment with Dr Spence, a paediatrician, as soon as possible. Mum had never been a big worrier, but there was something about his tone that alarmed her. “Is there something wrong?” she asked.
“I’m not sure, Mrs Fulton, but I think a visit to Dr Spence might be a good idea.”
Dr Spence cradled me in his arms, carried me to his examination table and took out his tape measure. He checked my body length, the length of my arms and legs and my head circumference. Then he placed me on the scales and noted my weight. Next, he pulled out his stethoscope and made sure everything sounded as it should. Handing me back to my parents, he simply said, “I’ll be in touch shortly.”
Two weeks later, Dr Spence sat my parents down, offered them a glass of water and began. “Mr and Mrs Fulton,” he said, levelling his gaze over his elaborate wooden desk. “Your son has been born with achondroplasia.”
Mum asked a raft of questions and Dad said nothing. Dr Spence told them achondroplasia is the most common form of dwarfism. It results in the shortening of the long bones—the arms and legs—and enlargement of the skull. He explained that achondroplasia was not usually detected until the third trimester of pregnancy and is often confirmed at birth, or later.
The Fulton family in 1967, left to right: Jill, Louise, Ian, aged about three, Mum and Mark.
Ashen-faced, my parents listened as Dr Spence outlined what the future would hold for me. “Ian will probably never grow much taller than four feet, two inches (1.27 metres),” said the doctor. I ended up stealing 15 centimetres more and topped out at four feet, eight inches (1.42 metres) and a bit.
“Your son will likely face the stares and ridicule of others … and I’m sorry to say, Mr and Mrs Fulton, he may well be bullied at school.” Mum and Dad sat in silence. Finally, Mum asked the question that had been bothering her since the doctor had announced the news: “When it’s time, should I send Ian to a school for special needs children?”
“Absolutely not, Mrs Fulton. Apart from his size, your son is perfectly normal in every other way.”
In heavy silence, Mum and Dad trudged down the steps of the doctor’s office and out into the cold. When they got home, Mum put the kettle on and slumped on the couch, wondering how she was going to break the news to my brother and sisters.
She heard Dad heading towards the back door. “Where are you going?” Mum asked.
“To see my family,” Dad said, and slammed the door behind him.
Above left: Mark, Louise and Ian on a swing in the backyard. Above right: Ian’s first set of wheels, which allowed him to go riding with his friends and be like other kids.
“What about me?” Mum heard herself say quietly, her eyes moistening.
Hearing the door slam, my three siblings bustled into the lounge room looking concerned. “What’s the matter, Mum?” asked Mark. Motioning for my brother and sisters to sit down on the couch, Mum dabbed the corners of her eyes with a hanky and proceeded to tell them about the visit to the doctor.
“It ’s your baby brother,” she said shakily. “He’ll never be physically normal.”
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Above all, Mum was terrified of what the future might hold for me, and, in particular, how I’d go through life with a disability.
Over the years, I’ve developed a clearer understanding about the condition I have. Achondroplasia is the result of a random mutation in the fibroblast growth factor receptor 3 gene (FGRF3). It affects one in 25,000 births and occurs during ossification. In most cases, the gene has no impact on bone growth, but if the gene mutates and becomes active, it can result in shortened bones. In 80 per cent of cases, like mine, there is no family history.
For babies with achondroplasia, development can be slightly slow. Fortunately, with me, nothing was unusual. I commando crawled for a long time and my first word, to Mum’s delight, was “mama”. I was a happy, smiling, albeit slightly chubby baby who, despite my physical differences, appeared normal in every other way.
Mum made up her mind about one thing: she wouldn’t overcompensate for my disability and I wouldn’t be treated any differently than my brother and two sisters.
My interfering Nana had other ideas . When she learnt of my dwarfism, she suggested that Mum hide me away from the world. When Nana grew up, disabled people were often treated as a shameful secret and were segregated and institutionalised. To her, I was a burden on the family. Thankfully, Mum wasn’t going to have any of it.
When Nana would visit, she would often reach into her purse, whip out a $5 or $20 note and hand it to my sister Jill. This was the 1970s and that was a lot of money back then, especially for a kid. “Here you go, Jill,” Nana would say brightly. “Some pocket money.”
Then she would wheel around, her eyes narrowing, and give me 10 or 20 cents. “You don’t need money like your sister does,” she’d say, flashing me a look of disapproval.
“Thank you, Nana,” I’d say politely, as I had been taught by Mum. But then I’d walk away from the exchange feeling heavy and sad, wondering why my sister got more money than I did. What made her worth so much more than me? Nana’s subtle put-downs throughout my childhood reinforced what I learnt to believe about myself—that I was a second-class citizen.
From as far back as I remember, I’ve had the desire to escape. At home, if I heard the distant rumble of a plane overhead, I’d run into the back garden and gaze up into the sky, imagining what it would be like to fly.
The start of primary school was challenging. Even though Mum had adjusted my uniform to fit and made sure my hair was short so as not to accentuate my large head, there was no getting away from the truth: I was much shorter than everyone else and a bit odd-looking.
I’d only been in primary school a few days when the cruel insults began. “Hey, Fathead.” “Hey, Shortie.”
Kids can be like that—inquisitive and, occasionally, cruel. I remember many times looking up at their faces, heart pounding, and feeling the shame of Dr Spence’s words, “You will never be tall.”
Fuelling the comments were one or two ringleaders who were much taller than me, which made the whole experience so intimidating. I felt ashamed and became increasingly withdrawn.
When I tried to stick up for myself, every part of my body would tingle and my mouth would go dry. “Sssstop it! Llleave me alone,” I’d stammer.
Well, one of two things can happen when you stand up for yourself: either the bullies get the message and leave you alone—or the bullying gets worse. In my case, it got worse.
At 9 a.m. the next day, as soon as I walked through the school gates, it started.
“Hey, Pumpkin Head!”
The name Pumpkin Head was gaining more and more traction. Even though I wasn’t one to stand up for myself, my instinct for self-preservation kicked in every now and then and I’d bite back.
I don’t remember his name, as keeping track of all my tormentors wasn’t easy, but I can picture him:bright orange hair, buck teeth and ruddy skin covered in freckles. We’d just arrived at our woodwork class and taken our positions at the workbenches dotted around the room. The teacher was yet to arrive. Quietly, I set about doing my work and ‘flying under the radar’.
Then this kid piped up. “Hey, Pumpkin Head!” The voice came from the other side of the classroom and I recognized it. Without looking up, I shot back, “What, Carrot Top?”
GOODBYE, PUMPKIN HEAD
Resilience is a popular word these days. Throughout most of my teen years, I had zero resilience. Mostly I felt worthless and ugly. Or just numb. All those bigoted nasty comments behind my back seemed right. I was convinced I was a pathetic wretch from a seriously dysfunctional family, and nothing was ever likely to change. But then, miraculously, in Grade 10, things finally did change.
It was a Saturday morning. A car and trailer had pulled into the driveway of one of the flats across the road. Through my front window, I watched as a group of people unloaded the contents of a trailer. I know him, I thought, spotting a boy.
Stan was a kid in my year at school who’d never given me any grief. Like me, Stan kept to himself. However, unlike me, Stan was big, powerful, good-looking and feared— everyone assumed he was one of the toughest guys in school. No one had been prepared to find out just how tough he was.
Stan and I didn’t have an issue with one another, so I felt free to wander across the road and offer to lend a hand with the unloading. My offer was gratefully accepted, and during that hour or so, Stan and I got to know each other better.
When the trailer was finally empty, I bade him and his family farewell. For sure, Stan would be at school the following Monday, but I wasn’t confident that a guy with such a tough reputation would even acknowledge me.
Consequently, I was astounded when that Monday morning, Stan approached me as I was gathering my books for the next class.
“Bob The Bully teases you , doesn’t he?”
“Yep,” I said, blushing.
“Right,” Stan said. “Next time this happens, tell me.”
With that he turned and walked away, leaving me open-mouthed but exhilarated. Maybe, just maybe, someone was finally on my side.
The following day, I heard the familiar words, “Hey, Pumpkin Head.” On cue, my chest started heaving with anxiety and suppressed rage. I wanted to scream but refused to give the bullies the satisfaction of knowing how much I was hurting inside.
An hour or so later, I spotted Stan. Not wanting to draw unwanted attention to myself, I spoke quietly. “Hey, Stan,” I said, my heart in my mouth. “It’s happened again.”
“Don’t worry, Ian—I’ll take care of it!”
Bob and his mates—greasy-haired, pimply, cool kids who had up to this point made my life hell—were strutting down the corridor when Stan approached from the opposite direction. With his meaty hands, Stan grabbed Bob the Bully, by the scruff of the neck and slammed him against a locker.
“You’ve been teasing my friend Ian Fulton, haven’t you?”
Bob the Bully scrambled for words, but his bravado disappeared. One of the toughest kids in the school was glaring at him, ready to cause him grievous bodily harm. Among Bob’s merry band of bullies, who was prepared to become the first casualty? “Not me!” appeared to be the collective response of Bob’s cowardly mates.
“Noooo, I haven’t been,” Bob, squirmed, his voice tightening. “I promise.”
“You have, I know it, and next time it happens,” Stan threatened, “I’ll have you!”
From that day onwards , I never heard the name Pumpkin Head again. I am forever grateful to Stan for stopping the living hell that had become my time in high school. In the respite he gave me, I was able to restore my fragile sanity before year’s end. This helped me a lot.
Although I was no longer being wounded by bullying, I still carry the scars.
A GIFT EMERGES
Somewhere in all the chaos of school, and at the ripe old age of 15, my voice broke. It happened one weekend in 1979 just after I woke from a deep teenage slumber. It was Saturday morning and from my bed I called out, “Cup of tea and toast, thanks, Mum.”
Mum stopped dead in her tracks, wheeled around and stared at me with a look that said, “Who are you and what have you done with my son?” So, I repeated myself, and my words came out deep and guttural. Hmmm, maybe I’m coming down with a cold, I thought.
My new voice would turn out to be my Willy Wonka golden ticket. My voice box had swollen and my monotone teenage boy’s voice, complete with teenage boy attitude, had morphed into something fuller, richer—a voice that would later be described by some as molten chocolate. From the depths of my small frame a mellifluous, resonant adult voice had emerged—a gift! I didn’t know it at the time, but my angst-ridden and insecure 15-year-old self would be propelled into a future I could have never imagined—all because of ‘that voice’.
Many times I’ve said, “My voice got the looks my face did not.”
My voice has opened a world of opportunity. I have travelled with my voice, narrated the most watched cooking programme in the world and lured people to the cinema to watch the biggest blockbusters.
The greatest bane of my life, my dwarfism—a diagnosis I received from Dr Spence at the start of my life—has turned out to be one of my greatest assets, believe it or not. Instead of setting me apart for all the wrong reasons, it makes me memorable for all the right reasons.
Today, Lofty is one of Australia’s leading voice-over artists. As the narrator of the hit television show MasterChef Australia, he is heard in more than 180 countries. He lives with his partner, photographer Helen Trenerry, and their dogs on the New South Wales coast.
FROM THE BOOK LOFTY: MY LIFE IN SHORT.
Published in Australia by HarperCollins, Reprinted with Permission of Ian Fulton, Copyright © 2019 Lofty Fulton Voice Productions (Australia) Pty ltd. for more information go to: loftymylifeinshort.com