For beauty I am not a star
Others are more perfect by far
My face I don’t mind it
For I am behind it
It’s those in front that I jar
After more than 60 eventful, busy years, I, for the most part, have found a great level of acceptance of myself and my life. It isn’t at all because circumstances have stopped happening and that life is always a bed of roses. It’s that I have learned how to embrace it and be who I am on the inside- a person who is whole and at peace.
This distinction of being whole on the inside is particularly useful to me since I am missing a body part on the outside. Anyone who sees me finds this hard to overlook. There are many truths to behold about this feature of me. An important one is this: sometimes when another person has a problem with me missing the lower portion of my right arm and my right hand, they try to make this a problem for me. When this happens I have to weigh the situation. Sometimes I can gently help the person with his or her preconceived notions. Sometimes I just leave them alone with themselves. Sometimes, when it really matters, I have go into action on my own behalf.
I was insulted recently in a way that was going to matter to me in the long term unless I took the right action. It happened when I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and successfully renewed my driver’s license exactly according to the rules. Several days later I received a letter from the Motor Vehicle Administration saying that I had been identified as a person with a “medical condition” that could affect my ability to be a safe driver. On the basis of this, I was now required to get copies of my medical records and submit these, along with a series of other forms, to a committee who would determine my suitability as a driver and make a decision as to whether or not I could keep my license.
I was dumbfounded. I have been a licensed driver for over 40 years and my record is stellar. I was born without the lower part of my right arm and hand. It is not from an amputation or a degenerative disease. It is not the result of any “medical condition.” And I am not under a doctor’s care for having a short arm.
In addition to all of this, throughout my driving career I have passed all written tests and all road tests the first time and I did this in two different states. I have officially qualified to drive again and again. I have driven all over several territories with different jobs, I have driven my son (and often his friends) everywhere he needed and wanted to go throughout his growing up years. I have even routinely traversed very distant points on the wide open plains of rural Colorado during all hours and in all weather conditions. I have driven a lot and with very few problems. This letter was off base and for a minute I thought all I would have to do is point this out to the right person at the MVA and they would drop the review. It didn’t go that way.
It took me two days and at least 6 phone calls to reach someone at the MVA who could discuss this. My “case” was assigned to a Case Manager who never laid eyes on me and had only just met me over the phone when I called.
The letter provided by the MVA identifies a list of 20 medical conditions (including amputations) that could cause a person to be an unsafe driver. All of these items are medical in nature and identify a debilitating disease process, interfering drug treatments or other emergent problems that would indeed render a driver to be unsafe.
I explained to the Case Manager that my arm is not the result of an amputation, I don’t have any of the other conditions listed and that my arm is more of a structural difference since birth. I told him that I am not sick and I don’t take any drugs. I told him I am not under a doctor’s care for having a short arm. Finally, I pointed out that I have passed all required tests and have a clean record. He said he did not understand how I could make a safe turn. I explained to him that my arm is long enough to reach and add stability to the steering wheel during a turn and that I have an elbow that can assist in the grip if needed. I reminded him that I have been driving for 40 years and have never had a problem. I suggested that he look at my driving record.
The upshot of my discussion with this Case Manager is that he said I was “nit-picking” and I needed to undergo the review. Now I was scared because this person is a registered nurse and seemed blind to the necessary distinctions of his role.
I remember once when I was about 16 I applied for a job with a major department store to sell maintenance contracts over the phone to customers who had purchased appliances. I was a great sales person and the hiring manager and I were both sure I could do the job.
Before I could get officially hired, they told me I had to get a medical clearance form signed by a physician saying I could do the job (???). With a sigh I took the form and went to see a physician. There was a question on the form that said “Can this person do any job for which he/she is hired?” The physician checked no, stating that I was unfit for employment at this store. When I asked in disbelief what he could possibly mean, he said I couldn’t climb up on a ladder and replace conduits in the ceiling. He wasn’t kidding either. As a teenaged girl who was applying for a job talking on the phone, I lost a little confidence in the medical profession that day.
Another earlier time, when I was about seven years old, I went to an orthopedic rehabilitation hospital to get fitted for and learn how to use an artificial arm. I remember when the guys in white uniforms presented me with a very low tech, freshly made arm extension. Essentially it was a hollow tube. My arm fit into one end and there was a 2 pronged hook at the other end, where fingers would be. Above the end of the tube where my arm went in, attached by straps, there was a cuff that fit around my upper arm. The cuff had a cable on it that ran down the tube and attached to the hook. The whole thing was attached to several other straps that looped around to a harness that went over the shoulder of my other arm. If I flexed my shoulders the straps and cables would open the hook.
On the day that was set up to give it to me, a whole group of men were there to teach me how to put on this “arm” and then show me how to use it. They presented it to me draped across a hanger. They started showing me how to slip my arm into the gadget while it was still on the hanger. Then they were stumbling around trying to explain how to get the rest of it on. Somehow they had lost sight of the fact that I had another arm and hand. I stopped their demonstration and took the contraption off of the hanger. I put it on using my working hand, much the way I would put on a shirt or a coat. While they were very impressed with my ingenuity, even at that tender age, I was not impressed with theirs.
When considering this latest action by the MVA, these previous incidents and others like them lingered in the back of my mind. I have become used to the fact that my arm often triggers a loss of common sense in other people but it is particularly disconcerting when it happens within the medical community. I was fearful that the MVA review committee was going to miss the point of their work and decide that after 40 years of being successful behind the wheel that I wasn’t safe.
It was apparent to me that I had to do something to make sure that they came to their senses. In the end, what I did was write a detailed letter to the case manager explaining to him the difference between my congenital abnormality and a new amputation. I again explained that my arm is not the result of a sickness. I detailed the reason behind the MVA safety initiative and pointed to my record.
When I couldn’t get an acknowledgment of the letter, I finally had my State Senator intervene. She had my letter escalated to the Chief Medical Officer who thankfully read and understood it. He called me and apologized for the trouble. He reviewed the information on an initial form that I had submitted and agreed with me that my case wasn’t even borderline- I was clearly a competent and safe driver and he was closing the case. Soon after that I got a letter from the MVA in the mail confirming that the case was closed and I could keep my license.
While I was glad to have this incident settled in my favor, it must be noted that because of an out-of-context observation by a single uninformed person, I was put in a position of having to clear myself. This project took six weeks to resolve. It required that I make at least 20 phone calls. In addition, I had to verbally explain the medically based aspects of the driver safety program to the DMV case manager (who is a registered nurse). Then when he wouldn’t listen I had to take the time and effort to put it all in writing. I had to monitor the acceptance of the letter and when I couldn’t get anyone to respond or listen to me, I had to ask my State Senator to step in. It took a lot of effort to resolve something that should never have been brought up in the first place.
Recounting these events traces an evolutionary thread in my life as a person with an upper limb difference.
Looking back on the artificial arm incident, I gave the contraption a chance. I wore it even though it was uncomfortable and clumsy, not to mention unattractive. When I had had enough, I disowned it. Later I was given another one, less complicated and more cosmetic. I didn’t want this one either and purposely broke the fingers off of it.
With the Department Store incident, for some reason, they hired me anyway. Contrary to the judgement of the physician who claimed I was unfit to work I did a great job.
While I grew from an impressionable young child to a teenager trying to find my footing to an adult who has a grown up place in the world, I searched for an equanimity in my dealings and an authenticity in my relationships.
Fortunately, these community leaders didn’t succeed in reducing me to their (hopefully) passing perceptions. In my own development I have to say that I have been all over the map, but I found my way. Today, I would say that I love and accept myself on the outside because I am whole and complete on the inside.
It is those in front that I jar.