Handy Guide to Amputees: Freakshow

*Warning: Contains an Amputee’s cursing thoughts*

Everything I write is based on my own experience. I cannot and do not want to talk for people with disabilities in general. Same applies to other amputees I cannot and do not want to talk for other amputees. This is just my personal account.

Last week, I’ve introduced my new series on being an Amputee. Before any questions arise, please read my last post.

This week, I want to start with a little story. A few years ago, I was working in retail to finance my studies and as everyone who worked in retail knows, it can be an interesting experience. If you want to have a get to know the human race in all its facets, go and work in the service sector for a while. You’ll be able to tell many, let’s say, interesting stories. On a rather quiet morning several summers ago, I was sitting behind the counter, serving customers. . It was spring and I was wearing a shirt with short sleeves so everyone passing by could see that I’m One-handed. Suddenly, I could see from the corner of my eye another customer running towards me. There are countless reasons why a customer might be running through a store. They might be in a hurry because they need to catch a bus, or maybe they’ve lost their child in the chaos. So I was preparing myself for something along the lines. When the customer was getting closer, I could see that he was rather enthusiastic if not excited. Upon approaching me, the customer was staring at my arm-stump and asked (and this were his actual words): “Whoa cool! Can I touch it???”

Even today I’m speechless about this event. In fact, I’ve blocked it out of my brain for months until a friend reminded me that also worked at that time with me in the same store. I’ve heard many insults in my life due to my disability (kids can be cruel). I’ve also gotten used to being stared at. However, never before and never after has someone treated me like a zoo attraction. Besides the obvious dehumanizing attitude said customer must’ve have towards disabled people, what on heaven, hell, and earth made him think that it might be a good idea to go over to a woman he has never seen before and ask her if he could touch her?! No I’m not a god damn Freakshow you could touch. Not even if you ask! Yes I look different, but I’m not here to entertain your curiosity. Trust me, even though my arm looks different, it still feels like any other arm made out of flesh and bone. You want to know why I am the way I am then feel free to ask. However, I’m not an exotic and weird animal. I understand that children might be a bit frightened, adults, however, should’ve learned that disabled people are human beings that deserve respect. Yes I get the curiosity. Call me narrow-minded, but that enthusiastic “whoa cool!” is just offensive.

Many family members have small children so I’ve noticed that children around the ages 2-4 realize for the first time that my right arm differs from the norm. They begin to show early stages of fear and I try all I can to show and explain them that there is no need to be afraid. I guess if a child never gets told that people with disabilities are people like everyone else, it seems that they grow up to adults that treat disabled people accordingly. Political correctness, however, is not always the best solution to teach children. Let me illustrate this point with another encounter I’ve had in retail.

One day, on another rather quiet morning, a woman and her daughter were at my counter paying for their purchases. The daughter was around 10, I think. While her mother was perfectly polite and nice during the process, I could see that the girl was curious about my arm, constantly staring. Despite the staring, the girl was rather shy and polite as well. The mother was about to leave, but still standing at the counter, when the girl turned towards her mother and asked if it’s OK to ask me about my disability. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and politeness of the little girl, and would’ve been glad to talk to her given the chance. I was not so impressed with her mother’s reaction. Instead of involving me into that conversation by either telling her daughter to ask me directly or to ask me on her daughter’s behalf. Instead, the woman turned towards her daughter, completely ignoring my existence, and says: “No, you can’t ask that, it’s not a polite thing to do”. Seconds later they left and I was stunned. Since when is my opinion about my body not important!? Since when is political correctness more important than an honest conversation!? Yes, political correctness is a way to avoid people being insulted. However, many abuse political correctness to avoid talking about uncomfortable issues. Others are politically correct, not because they genuinely care about others and don’t want to insult or hurt them, but because they know that not being politically correct is socially unacceptable and they want to keep their own butts out of trouble.

Human interaction can be complex enough when the other person is in many regards just like you. When the other person differs from you and you are not sure how to interact with the other person, a normal conversation can feel like a walk through a minefield. I can’t give a summarizing moral of the day. Sometimes nurture plays a role how the other is treated, sometimes more complex issues are a contributing factor. I guess when in doubt, just treat the other how you wanted to be treated.

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