seeing disability through a different lens

I’ve made it no secret on this blog that I wasn’t the most confident person growing up. I hid my limb difference as much as I could and refused to display it in photographs until very recently. I was taught from an early age that my lack of a hand was something that should be hidden. If you look at the pictures (the few that do exist) of my early teen years, you’ll find it’s nearly impossible to tell that I’m missing half my left arm. By that age, I’d already become a pro at disguising my defect (or what I considered a defect back then, rather) using sweaters, jackets, long sleeves and gloves. I was determined to look as normal as possible and grew embarrassed whenever someone would call attention to my missing hand. Things have fortunately changed since then and I’ve come a long way in building a better self image. But sometimes I think about my old pictures and regret all the anxiety and energy I put into hiding myself.


15-year-old me always opted for long opera gloves

When I think about my relationship with my disability as a child, I always wonder if maybe there were things I (or those around me) could have done to help me feel more confident about looking different. I did go to camp for kids with disabilities a couple times, but their main focus was more on learning to use my Myoelectric prosthetic and functioning in a two-handed world. They didn’t really address the topic of body image, and it wasn’t like there was any representation of limb difference on TV or in movies. So who’s a limb different girl to look up to in this looks-obsessed society? When is a child with a disability allowed to feel like she can be beautiful just as she is?

A few days ago, a close family friend sent me a link to a post about a photographer who snaps pictures of her daughter and creates beautiful dream-like scenes with them. The little girl, Violet, does not have a left hand, but that’s hardly the main reason for staring at the images. Violet’s mother Holly Spring has used digital editing to transform the backgrounds into several different fantastical worlds for her daughter to inhabit,  images that include giraffes, enchanted meadows, and sunset boat rides. Her muse and model absolutely shines as she smiles, poses, and dances for the camera. And what’s one thing I can’t help but notice in all the photos? While not all the pictures display her smaller arm, little Violet clearly makes no attempt to conceal it.

Holly Spring's photos features her little girl embarking on various whimsical adventures

Holly Spring’s photos features her little girl embarking on various whimsical adventures

What we see in Spring’s photos is a girl who has more confidence as a kindergartener than I’ve been able to muster in more than two decades. Her joy and freedom and self esteem are palpable. What we don’t see, however, is Violet’s mother who stands behind the scenes. But Spring is more than just the photographer here. She is the one responsible for her daughter’s glow, building Violet’s confidence by casting her in the spotlight and showing her how beautiful she is. I think the most important factor in growing a child’s self-confidence is letting them know that someone they love believes in them and believes that they’re beautiful, that their physical difference does not detract one bit from that beauty.

1524823_741268325885514_164229681_n 2Violet is still young, and her opinions about herself will develop and evolve as she grows older. That’s a fact of life, and we all go through moments of self-consciousness and insecurity. But I hope that when that time comes, when doubt sneaks its way into her mind, that she will take one look through her childhood photos and summon even an ounce of the easy confidence she displays in those radiant images.



(Second and third images belong to Holly Spring)
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why you should embrace your limitations


Last week I happened upon a great TED talk by Phil Hansen, a talented artist I’m ashamed to admit I’d never heard of before watching the video on YouTube. I don’t want to give the whole speech away, but Hansen basically talks about a tough point in his life when his hand developed a neurological shake and threatened his art career. Instead of “overcoming” (I hate that word for so many reasons, but that’s a completely different topic) his disability, though, he “embraced the shake” and made the bold claim that personal limitations are actually what drive creativity. Seriously, watch the full video. This guy is rad:

Inspired by Hansen’s talk, I thought about my own limitations and how they can be beneficial to me in some way. I grew up in a very artsy/literary family, so I like to think I’m a creative type myself. And I think having a disability, specifically my limb difference, has been an asset for me in that sense. When you have a physical difference, you have to search for new ways to perform ordinary tasks most people take for granted. I don’t tie my shoes the way two-handed people do. And the same goes for playing guitar, pulling up my hair, opening a bag of chips, typing on a keyboard, and a million other things that probably wouldn’t even occur to you. It’s as if I was forced to be creative from the second I was born.


Bruce Lee by Phil Hansen, painted using only karate chops

I’m not an artist like Phil Hansen, at least not in the same capacity, but I do use my creativity in many aspects of my life. I put a lot of my ideas and channel my different ways of thinking into writing fiction, which I love to do as a hobby. And I’ll admit that my quick thinking has helped in various situations and experiences.


Virgin Mary by Phil Hansen, created using peanut butter and jelly sandwich slices

Ultimately, I think the beauty of Hansen’s statement lies in the fact that it doesn’t just apply to people with disabilities. We’re all a part of the human experience and are all therefore limited in some way (most likely in many ways). So if there’s one thing I’ll take with me from this brilliant talk, it’s this, which Phil Hansen puts perfectly:

“Learning to be creative within the confines of our limitations is the best hope we have to transform ourselves and collectively transform our world.”

Embrace the shake,
Caitlin Michelle

 (artwork images from Phil Hansen’s website)
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