Honoring our Differences

On September 18th, I am participating in a charitable fundraiser, by speaking about my experiences growing up with one hand.  Since many of our friends at Learninghope.org live too far away to attend, I am sharing the content of my speech here.  It’s a humorous and inspiring look at the way we treat people who are different than ourselves and what it’s like to be on the other side of the question, “what happened to your…?”  It’s entitled “The Question.”

Imagine for a moment what it would feel like to be asked a question by someone you just met. Excuse me sir, if you don’t mind me asking…”what happened to your nose?” I hope this isn’t too personal, ma’am, but “what happened to your hair?” Whoa! You over there! “What exactly happened to your ear?”

Now imagine how it would feel if nearly everyone you met asked you that same question all your life. That is my story. I was born one handed. That’s right. I am the one-handed version of awesome! Not only did it seem that I was asked a million times, “what happened to your arm?” I didn’t have an answer.  Nothing happened to my arm.  It’s just my arm.

A lot of your self image is shaped by the way the world receives you. I was born and raised in a small, rural community in Iowa, and it seemed to me that everybody I met thought there was something wrong with me and the most important thing was finding out why. It definitely affected my self image.

Usually, about this time in conversation, several of you in the audience are starting to kick yourself, thinking of all the times you have asked someone you met The Question…what happened to you? So, let me help you sort this out. You can’t change the fact that you are naturally curious, or that other people have asked the same question. You can, however, be sensitive to the feelings of the other person.

For example: realize that you may be asking the person to recall a very painful time in his/her life. Consider if this is a convenient time to ask. Don’t be like the lady in the restaurant who noticed me across the dining room as I was putting a winter coat on my toddler (not an easy task with two hands) and hollered at me “Hey you, come here a minute. I want to ask you a question.” What?  Are you doing research or something lady?? 

And finally, ask yourself if you are asking The Question as part of getting to know the person better, or just opportunistically. As I was preparing this speech a few weeks ago, a woman in the Chicago airport was kind enough to give me material for today. Not more than 10 seconds into starting a conversation with me at the gate, she said, “I can’t help noticing, so if you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your arm?” I politely told her “I was born this way.” and then imagined adding. “I can’t help but notice your wedding ring, so if you don’t mind me asking, did you have sex with your husband before getting married or wait until your wedding day?” Is it starting to make sense now?

My senior year of high school, I started thinking about going to college. In addition to choosing a college and thinking about what I wanted to study, I started thinking about The Question again. I realized that within a few months, I would be traveling to a new community, and meeting hundreds of new people and I knew I would be asked The Question hundreds of times over. So, I decided to have fun with it.

I made a pact with myself that anytime I was asked The Question at college, I would answer it the same way…”I used to wrestle alligators.” I had the most fun EVER with this story. Except, I wasn’t prepared for the people who believed me.

So, I had to quickly develop a follow up line… Jennifer, what happened to your arm? “I used to wrestle alligators.” Wow, really? Yah, my record is 19 and one. 

Besides being entertaining, growing up one-handed has given me other gifts in the form of questions. Because I have had to find my own way to do things all my life, I have a different approach to life.

First of all, I never question that it can be done or that I can do it. Secondly, I always question whether the conventional way is the best way. And I’m not talking just about physical tasks. I’m the one at the board meeting that thinks outside of the box because I’ve been doing it my whole life.

Living life one-handed has taught me some valuable lessons.

  • It’s okay to wonder…but you don’t always have to ask.
  • If you feel you need to ask, consider the other person’s feelings.
  • And, if you take the time to get to know a person, what did or didn’t happen to them will be revealed. If you’re not interested in getting to know them as a fellow soul, you’re not entitled to know.

So, as I close, I want to leave you with a final Question…How has the last 5 minutes changed your perspective, and how will you treat people differently from now on? Now, that’s a question we all should ask!

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