Difference Does Not Equal Disability

Here’s what “disability” looks like: a pigtailed 3-year-old girl holds a baby doll and smiles; a teenage boy sinks yet another three-pointer on the basketball court. Now adjust your mental image: the little girl holds the doll between her chin and chest because she has no arms; the teenage boy’s left arm ends at his ribcage level and doesn’t have any fingers.

These are only a couple of examples of the adaptation and ability that characterized my weekend at “Hand Camp.” Hand Camp is Hands to Love’s annual retreat for families of children with congenital upper limb differences. In other words, these kids were born with arms or hands that are somehow different than the norm. Yet they can do most everything that I can. In many cases (such as my fellow basketball player), they do it better.

This was my fourth year at camp, which takes place at Camp Crystal Lake in Keystone Heights, Florida. I host support groups and workshops where parents reflect, connect, and share solutions with each other. Parenting is universally challenging; it’s even more so when your family contends with frequent doctor visits, multiple surgeries, and the stigma and stares that people with a physical difference often encounter.

Hands to Love’s mission is to “[bring] together children with congenital hand differences and their families to create a safe haven in which these families can try new activities, share experiences and develop a support network.” And that support network is strong; founded and run by a doctor and occupational therapists, this year’s volunteers included adaptive equipment experts, occupational therapists, physical therapists, a clinical psychologist, college students, and adults with upper limb differences (a.k.a. “AULDs”) from a variety of fields.

These volunteers join forces with campers and families to network, adapt, achieve, and thrive. But the true power of Hand Camp lies in the challenge and celebration that camp activities provide for the kids. Camp Crystal Lake features rock climbing, kayaking, arts and crafts, swimming, a ropes course, and archery—all in a safe environment.

I emphasize safety in the standard sense of trained staff that ensures no one gets hurt; but safe, too, in the emotional sense. For these kids, it’s easier to take risks and be themselves without the interference of onlookers who assume they can’t perform an activity—or, worse, won’t even let them try.

In each activity, volunteers are there to help; but it’s common for kids with limb differences to work out how to do things on their own—just turn around and they’ve devised a new way to hold a fork or tie shoelaces. The more physical pursuits might necessitate special adaptations (a strap or stand to hold a bow and arrow, for example), but everyone works together to find a way for campers to experience success.

While much is possible for these children, life with a limb difference isn’t always such fun. In addition to physical challenges, discomfort and injury can arise from pointed stares, rude questions, teasing, and bullying. [See this LIFE Center article to learn more about these challenges.]

That’s why Hand Camp is so important. One weekend a year, these kids get the opportunity to be themselves in a context that doesn’t single them out. Instead, they’re surrounded by people who, like them, prefer to focus on strengths and ability. Campers make new friends, learn new skills—even practice new dance moves. They also get to interact with older kids and AULDs, who are living proof of the unlimited possibilities for the future.

It’s hard to describe the support and positive energy that electrifies the air of Hand Camp each year, but I know that I leave feeling better than when I arrived. Being a part of the Hands to Love mission infuses me with hope and motivates me to try more, expect more, and be more. It inspires me to sustain the attitude—the conviction—that anything is possible.

Ever feel self-conscious or unsure when interacting with someone with a disability or difference? Check out LIFE Center’s Straight Talk about Disability.

Or, click these links to read more about the
Hands to Love organization, Hand Camp 2009 (news article), and awesome AULD Wendy Stoeker.

1 comment:

Sharon and Mike Williams said...

Once again, Erin, you have posted a most meaningful message. Now as a retired ESE teacher and media specialist, I look back on my active teaching years and remember dozens of kids just like you worked with --remarkable youngsters that did not let what others considered a disability hold them back. Thanks for giving them the time and opportunities to succeed.

your neighbor