When I think back to elementary school, I can recall my first day of the first grade like it was yesterday. The smells, the laughter, the commotion off in the distance in the playground, it all is still so clear in my mind. I remember being nervous for the first day and sitting on my mother’s bedside and asking her what to expect. She offered words of encouragement and words of discipline. “Have fun, make friends and listen to what your teachers say,” she told me. I went to my sister later that evening and asked her the same question. Her response, “Make as many friends as you can!” Being so young, I knew I was different because of my hands, but I had no idea what impact that would have on me making friends, so I asked her how to make friends. Her advice has stuck with me to this day and impacts every interaction I have or will ever have. She told me to just be myself and be confident. Being a first grader I had no idea what confidence meant, so her advice was to smile and to go up to as many people as possible and say hello and introduce myself. She told me that if they asked about my hands to be honest with them and tell them that “I was born this way.”
Sure enough, that first day of school I was a social butterfly. I told myself that I wanted to make at least 3 friends so that I could go home and tell mom, dad and Sissy, so they would be proud of me. That day I went home and made 6 friends on the first day and never looked back!
Conversation about my hands was a daily occurrence growing up as expected. I was questioned, I was bullied, I was interrogated. At times it was trying, but what got me through it was when another kid or peer would approach me and see me doing something so mundane and they would look at me, smile and say something to the effect of, “that’s so cool!” That helped wash away all the negativity for me.
As I got older, I realized that education was my best friend. Rather than ending the conversation at “I was born this way,” and leaving an inquisitive mind to ponder further, I would take the time to explain what I knew about my hands and even giving them a demonstration of a simple task that I could do. I found that when I would approach a stare or a question this way, that more often than not, it would end with an “aha” moment for the other person and they could walk away with a nugget of knowledge and a new-found appreciation.
Throughout high school, college and even today I have been on the receiving end of stares, comments, questions and the statement “You are so inspirational”. Now, when someone makes that statement to me, I cannot explain the humility, passion and gratefulness I am consumed by when someone utters those words. Let me explain.
One thing we can all agree on is that no one really knows everything about everyone and especially the inner struggles that we deal with on a daily basis. By walking through a crowd, you could potentially be walking beside 10 cancer survivors, 5 widows, 10 infertile mothers that want kids, 3 teens with depression, 15 veterans, 2 parents to children they lost, 11 car accident survivors, 20 people who know of someone with a limb difference or disability, 5 people that are financially unstable and list goes on and on. I call these folks, “people with hidden struggles”…and guess what, we all fall into that category! We all have gone through adversity and had to overcome. With that being said, you never know if that person approaching you to call you inspirational is dealing with something so bad that just by seeing a double amputee walk down the street on prosthetics absolutely just made their day, helped them escape from their hardship for a split second and helped them work up the courage to come give you a compliment.
My definition of success is your ability to impact and better the people around you. From my experience 99% of the time that anyone who goes to give a compliment after they see me doing just a normal task, is smiling as they talk to me. So who am I to be offended or off put by someone who is happy to compliment another human being. Now, in all fairness most of the time it’s for very routine things and I think that the limb difference community can agree that most of the time when someone gives us a compliment it seems a little odd because it’s a second nature task to us that we have adapted to. None the less, it is powerful for the other person, so who are we to judge where a person inspiration is derived from. Whether we are offended or grateful is a personal choice that we inherently make ourselves.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Now sometimes people can make comments that come across truly patronizing, agreed. Even if someone were to look me dead in the eye today and said “great job picking up that fork two fingers,” you know what my response would be…”Well at least they were smiling while they said it and if that comment helped make their day better than so be it!” If I had the opportunity to educate in that moment I would, but if not, I could walk away knowing that a comment like that has no control over my life unless I allow it to and that I am so confident in my beliefs, ethics and abilities that it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest.
If someone stares at me, my gut reaction is to go start a conversation with them, not to stare back in hopes that they feel like a douche. I want to learn why they are staring and what their story is. I want to be active in the world, not passive. I bet you that they are curious and curiosity is not a bad thing until you perceive and assume it to be. In those moments we should look to be story tellers and story seekers because you never know when taking the time to inquire can change someone’s day, or even, save someone’s life.
A very dear friend of mine named Danny was in an accident as a kid and was paralyzed from the waist down. He feels the same way I do, in that we should educate those around us who either inquire or compliment us. However, he has friends that are also in wheelchairs that share the opposite perspective. Neither one is right or wrong, but I personally feel that one looks at the situation from a glass half full perspective and the other doesn’t. Those that share the same optimism with me usually view the benefit to the other person is far greater than the way it makes the receiving person feel. And heck, if someone else’s day is made just by seeing me play sports or do really anything for a split second, then all the better.
I encourage all of the limb difference community and everyone else to really audit themselves and figure out if comments, compliments or inquisition bother you or inspire you. I would go out on a limb to say (Pun intended), that if you are offended, that it probably has more to do with your views of yourself and the world around you, rather than the words or intentions of those engaging with us. I think there is a big difference between those people with a physical difference that are genuinely happy and those who aren’t and it’s because those who are happy view what they were born with or the circumstance they have been given as a gift and not a curse.
My best piece of advice is to never overlook and cast aspersions on to another human being for their actions or comments because their story is unknown. As the limb difference community knows all too well, we don’t want those aspersions cast upon us!
To anyone and everyone who sees someone who they feel inspired by, keep giving those compliments, but tell them why you feel that way…Create value for each other…make the world a better and more educated place!
Can’t is Not an Excuse