Check out my stickers

During my second week at my new library job, I found myself sitting at the reference desk applying stickers to my prosthetic arm. When I was finished, I had a trail of assorted insects (and a few spiders) zigzagging around my arm. It didn’t take long for someone to comment on my bugs. That, of course, was the point.

It had been so long since I’d worked with the general public that I had almost forgotten why I used to keep my arm decorated with stickers. It wasn’t the love of stickers or the desire to show off my favorite bands or opinions. It was an opening. It was for all those people who would never ask me directly about my prosthetic arm, but would say something about my stickers. It was my way of saying that I’m not taking this too seriously. I’m not pretending that you don’t notice my difference. I’m saying it’s okay to notice.

I started the sticker thing when I was working as a server. I was a college student looking to make a decent amount of money with a flexible schedule. What better job than waiting tables, right? I was fortunate enough to find someone willing to give me a chance despite the obvious question: can a person with one arm do this job?? It turned out that yes, I could do the job. I did it for the next several years. It didn’t take long for me to learn the particulars of the job. It probably took me even less time to learn that unaddressed curiosity is THE WORST.

Maybe you don’t know this, but I can tell when you’re curious about me. I can feel it. You might think you are keeping your questions quiet, but you wear them in your body language. Most people do, anyway. And when I have to interact with you repeatedly, like when I am serving you a meal at a restaurant, it’s uncomfortable for both of us to ignore the questions you are trying so hard to hold in.

You know what’s bad for tips: awkwardness. It just is. Sure, sometimes you’ll get a bigger tip because the customer feels guilty about the awkwardness. But most of the time, awkward = bad tip. That wasn’t good for my pocketbook, and it made my job way less fun. So I stuck a few stickers to my arm.

It’s funny what a few stickers can do. They’re an icebreaker. They’re a signal. They cut the awkwardness down to almost nothing. They give people an out if they are caught staring.

When I started working in a public library, the stickers became even more important. I wanted to be approachable to my library patrons (and successful in my career) even more than I had wanted good tips in my serving job, and I really didn’t want the many, many kids I saw at the library to feel uncomfortable around me or afraid of me. No one wants to be an object of fear.  Librarians especially so. I wanted kids to know that they could ask me anything, and I wouldn’t judge them for it. I wouldn’t be in this field if I didn’t value curiosity, and I wouldn’t have chosen to work with young people, if I wasn’t comfortable answering these kinds of questions.  I’ve found it helps to dive into the questions, get them answered, and move on from there. Watching people hold questions in makes my job way less fun.

I was reminded of that as I started my new job—back in public service at a library after several years in the not-public side of the library world. This week I changed the bugs to something more summery just as I had told a young library visitor I would. “Come back in a couple of weeks,” I’d said. “I already have my summer stickers picked out. Wait’ll you see ‘em!”

Maybe it’s silly. Maybe it wouldn’t be what you would do if you were me. Maybe a lot of things. For now: wait’ll you see my new stickers. ;)

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Pirate arms vs. Robot arms

One of the most common questions I am asked regarding my prosthetic arm is some variation of the following: “Why don’t you have one of those cool robot hands I saw on TV?”

My standard answer is to talk about how prosthetics are expensive and often not covered by insurance.  This explanation usually makes sense to people, but I can’t help but feel that I’m letting them down.  After all, the basic design for my prosthesis was developed in 1812.  The materials have changed for the better; they are lighter and cheaper. But I still look like I belong on a pirate ship with my body-powered, hook-shaped prosthesis.

amazingbioI bring this up now because we are in the middle of Disability History Month (at least we would be if we were in the UK), and it seemed like a good time to link to this article from How Stuff Works: How Prosthetic Limbs Work. It is a fantastic article that covers a lot of the points I usually make, like how expensive this stuff is, how they haven’t changed that much, and how they don’t last a lifetime.  People don’t usually think about these things.  They just think about the cool documentary they watched about the cutting edge stuff.  A kid might think of a book they read like Amazing Feats of Biological Engineering, which makes it seem like bionics are more here and now than they are.*  Or they think: We live in the twenty-first century; Robot arms should be a reality by now.

It does seem like we’re getting closer to that reality.  3-d printing offers some really interesting options for prosthetics, and organizations like E-Nable are trying to connect people who could benefit from the technology to the people who know how to use it.  I am excited to see where this will lead.  Perhaps sometime soon my old pirate arm will be a thing of the past.

Until then, it would be cool to see a documentary or read a book about the prosthetic devices that people are actually using right now.  Even if they do seem like they are from another era.

 

More questions about my prosthetic arm answered here.

 

* Nothing against the book.  It’s actually pretty cool to see prosthetics addressed at all, and if it encourages kids to think about this kind of technology, I’m all for it.

The difference a prosthetic can make

I am well aware that if I had been born in a different time or place my life would not be what it is.  I might point to my eyeglasses and reference my very poor unassisted vision as one way my life would have been quite different if I’d been born a few hundred years ago.  But I think that my prosthetic arm is the more obvious tie to the modern era that I rely on regularly.

I might argue that I can’t go without my glasses for more than a few minutes, and I can go without my fake arm for days if necessary, but the truth is that I don’t want to go without either.  There are plenty of one armed people who don’t use prosthetics– and most insurance companies will consider them cosmetic–but I can’t imagine my life without mine.

IMG_0140.JPGI wish I had a cool story like the girl in A Time to Dance who was able to live her dream of pursuing a career in dance even after losing her foot because of her prosthetic leg.  Yes, it’s fiction (teen fiction, to be specific), but there’s a real precedent there.  For Veda in the story, it is obvious how having a prosthetic leg changed her life.  It opened her to opportunities that were otherwise closed.  Sometimes I can forget that that’s possible.

My prosthesis is neither here nor there in my dreams, which revolve around books, libraries, and writing.  My story is nowhere near as dramatic as the usual inspirational novel.  And the truth is that if I’d never had a prosthetic arm, my life may very well be basically the same.

I have no idea what I would do with my hair without my prosthetic arm, but I’m sure I would have figured out something.

The real story is this: I have had my prosthetic arm since before I can remember.  It has always been a part of me.  I am not sure how much it has changed my life to have had it.  It simply is my life.  I could probably live without it if I had to, but I really don’t want to.  It does make my life much easier, and I definitely need it to put my hair in a pony tail.

My story isn’t an inspirational novel.  My story is set in a world where I haven’t had to consider “Ugly Laws” or other limitations.  I live after the Americans with Disabilities Act made accommodations available to those who needed them, and I’ve never need any anyway.  I was able to pursue whatever career I wanted, and I never had to worry if I would be barred from anything because of what I lacked.

I am very grateful that I live here and now. But even in the here and now, prosthetics are prohibitively expensive for many.

When I read stories like A Time to Dance, I am reminded of how powerful access to prosthetics can be, how it can truly change people’s lives.  I’ll never know how my life would be different without my prosthetic arm, if at all, but I am extremely grateful that my parents made it happen for me.  I would love to give someone else a chance to experience what prosthetics can do.  Perhaps it will be integral to their dream.  Or maybe it will be integral to their sense of identity.  Either way, I think it’s a worthy cause.

Consider a donation to the charity that made my prosthetic arms possible: Shriner’s Hospital for Children Twin Cities.  Or explore other options for limb deficient people who find that their insurance does not cover prosthetic devices or their repair such as Limbs for Life.

 

Note: This is not a sponsored post, and the book was a library copy.

 

The Person With a Disability

Last week, I happened to catch the third part in a series about local blogger, Bruce Kramer, on MPR.  He blogs about life with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and something he said in the interview jumped out at me:

“We’re all facing some form of disability in some way, shape or form in our lives. We just don’t know it yet. Or we do know it and we carry a fear that it defines us.”

I think many people try not to talk about their disability/difference because they don’t want it to define them, but in my experience, the opposite is true.  The more people know about my arm, the more people forget about it.  The less I am “the girl with one arm,” and the more I am the bookish librarian or the short, blonde girl or however else people might think of me.

So, yes… I talk about disability.  I have a zine about it (which I am working on updating).  I have a page on my blog dedicated to your questions about it.  I even published an article about books about it.  If you run into me on the street, I will answer your questions because the more you know about it, the less it defines me to you.

There’s a lot of talk in some circles about political correct speech–using “person with a disability” instead of “disabled person.”  While I appreciate the sentiment, I don’t pay too much attention to such details.  For me, the best way to be more than what people see is to make them comfortable with what they see–which is going to mean talking about it.

It moves “disability” to the end of the sentence naturally, or maybe even pushes it completely out of people’s thoughts.  I can’t tell you how many friends over the years have told me that they forget about my arm to the point that they get caught off guard when someone asks about it. Truth be told, sometimes I forget too about it too.

Take away point: If you want to forget about something, talk about it.  Your mileage may vary, but it seems to be working for me….   ;)