My names Laura and I have no arms. Phew, I’ve said it. It’s a sentence I seem to say both a lot and rarely and a few conversations recently got me thinking why that might be. I don’t usually introduce myself by saying, ‘Hello my names Laura, I live in Devon with my husband and I have no arms’ — it’s as strange to me as telling someone what colour my hair is. I only really say it when someone goes to shake my hand (or in the current climate, sees me typing/drinking coffee/trying to shoo the cat away on videoconference). Now you might think that people don’t try to shake my hand, I mean why would someone try to shake hands with someone who, well doesn’t have them. You’d be surprised and I’m not meaning to be flippant — we are a society built on politeness (mainly) and it’s a very British thing to introduce yourself with a handshake, its almost instinctive. When this happens, I say ‘I’m sorry I don’t have any arms’ and two things usually happen….. I think ‘why am I apologising’ and the person thinks ‘eek, what do I say now’. Think about it, when you meet someone for the first time, do you consciously check what they have and don’t have? I don’t. Maybe I should. But I also never mean offence and I haven’t yet met anyone else who means offence, so lets start by getting over the awkwardness and assuming the best of folk. If you go to shake my hand when we meet or you stare a bit or think you’ve said the wrong thing, don’t beat yourself up about it — move on, laugh about it and (if you’re comfortable to and its not Covid times) lets hug. If you’ve got questions, ask them, honestly I have noticed I have no arms, you won’t be drawing my attention to something I’m not aware of. Good, now we’ve got that out of the way and agreed that nothings off the table I should also be clear that I’m talking from my perspective only, I do not claim to speak for all people with disabilities, only myself. Don’t throw things at me if you don’t agree — feel free to argue your point but be prepared that I will do the same. I’m fairly certain I am much more experienced at living my life than you are.
New kid on the block…..
I grew up in the 80s in a truly marvellous family which consisted of my parents, older brother, older sister and a seeming endless supply of fabulous aunties, uncles and cousins, some blood relations and some who had just been around for so long and were so close that they were family (still are). I was lucky that my family didn’t show if they had any nervousness about having this screaming girl with no arms suddenly enter their lives (not sure if the no arms thing was more of a shock than being a girl as they thought I was a boy — just call me Edward!) I started using my feet properly when I was about 18 months, I’d been told I couldn’t have sweets from the kitchen but I wanted them, so I got them. I was stubborn/determined to the core and that’s not changed. As a kid, I didn’t get wrapped in bubble wrap nor did I get away with anything. My brother used to hide sweets in high cupboards where I couldn’t reach them (yet woe betide anyone else gave me a hard time — you would have to answer to said brother and those cousins mentioned above). My parents had the kitchen refitted so I could do the washing up and didn’t get out of household chores (I tried believe me). I went to a mainstream school with fabulous teachers and the most amazing teaching assistant you could ever imagine who is totally responsible for some of my stubbornness and bad habits and I love her and her family dearly. I was given one artificial arm when I was 11 but also given the choice not to use it, which I took. I was given the belief that I could be anything, do anything, go anywhere and I took it. I went to uni, I lived alone, I worked, I married, I travelled etc all because the stubbornness in me tells me I can. I married a man who also doesn’t let me off with anything and, whilst he is the most supportive, kind man, he is also the first to tell me to get over myself. The point here is that I have not grown up being ‘disabled’, its not a term I recognise or relate to. Ok, I’ll never be a hand model but I’ve never wanted to be. I’m not ‘dis’ anything, I just do things upside down as my nephew once told me. I’m baffled by the belief that having no arms (other disabilities are available) needs to be a barrier. I accept that it can make things harder, I struggle a bit more with some things and I really do get wildly frustrated at times but show me a person who doesn’t….where I struggle to open a jar, I’ll hazard a guess that you struggle to make a roast dinner using your feet.
And your point is?
I was incredibly lucky; I had the support to decide what life I wanted to live and live it. I want the world to recognise that people aren’t disabled, they may do things differently, but it’s the external experiences that make things hard. Its not being believed in, or even worse being told ‘ah, you’re disabled, you don’t need dreams, ambitions etc, we’ll look after you’. Don’t do this, and whilst I’m at it, don’t tell me I’m ‘vulnerable’ or ‘inspirational’, I’m someone whose experiences have made me me, just like you all. Life hasn’t all been plain sailing, I’ve had my share of difficult situations and sadness but having no arms isn’t one of those times, in fact there is a list of amazing opportunities I probably wouldn’t have had if I’d been born with them. I have a wildly stubborn streak and if someone tells me I can’t do something, I will go all out to do it. I’ve been paragliding, skiing, am a qualified scuba diver and (my personal favourite) flew a plane over London. I don’t say these things from an ‘aren’t I great’ place but a ‘if you find the right people who don’t see the dis, you can do anything’ place. If we can build a world, a society, a mindset where we can think a bit different, look for ways around the hurdle, inject a bit of stubbornness and belief in what folks can do, we have a world where people believe they can. If we accept that the way a kitchen is designed means someone can’t wash up, or believe that putting sweets in high cupboards stops someone (fyi — it doesn’t, it just means someone drags a chair and climbs) then we limit potential for someone who hasn’t even figured out that there is a life beyond mars bars yet. Lets not be those people.
So again, my names Laura, I have no arms, I am determined and they are my superpowers. Ask me about it.