What Happened to Your Hand?

Originally published in Expressions: A Magazine of Literature and Art by People with Disabilities and Ongoing Health Problems, Summer 1996 – Winter 1997, Vol. 3, No. 2 + Vol. 4, No. 1.

Wearing a sharp tweed suit, nails done, and hair coiffed, I am feeling quite good on a sunny April morning as I leave for my job interview. I get into the taxicab, carrying my briefcase. The cabbie turns to the back seat and says, “Where are you going? And what happened to your hand?” His question jolts me out of my blissful confidence. Two hours later, I am sitting in Au Bon Pain, pleased that the interview has gone well. The older woman seated at the table next to me comments on the arrival of spring and then asks, “How did you lose your fingers?” I fight back the tears that well up. The next night I am at a party with some college friends. I am introduced to a young woman who asks: “Were you born that way?”

Social etiquette and curiosity are at issue here. Some people may figure that it is more polite just to get it out in the open that they notice my hand than to feign that they do not. Other people are inquisitive about things that are a little unusual or different. On my end, I don’t like to be asked right away; just because my difference is visibly obvious does not give people permission to ask about it before they know who I am. My response to the cabbie, the Au Bon Pain customer, the woman at the party? “I know you are curious, but how about taking your time before you ask such a sensitive question? Could you maybe try to get to know me for a few minutes before you ask that question? I mean, how about asking me my favorite color, my hometown, my opinion of the President…?”

And how about some sensitivity with the question itself? The language of questions can determine whether the person asked feels hurt or self-respected. Why do people assume that something happened to my hand? There’s something about that particular question that really bothers me. Read the subtext here: “Were you in an accident? Did your mother take birth control pills?” (thanks for the empathy, but please don’t blame my Mom!) ‘What happened to my hand?’ you ask me? What do you mean? Nothing happened. God made me this way. Here in America we value individuality strongly. It’s ironic, though, because the unstated rule is: first, fit the mold perfectly; then, express your individuality by stepping out, stepping off the tread mill, and being truly different. But what about those of us who are born different? Would I need to have ten fingers in order for people to consider me “normal”?

So timing and language are critical. You might think that I would have it easy in this area; after all, shouldn’t I know, given my situation, how to get it right? Ironically, no. You see, because I know how much a question can hurt or make me feel good, I think that it is actually harder for me to ask. One time, I walked into a copy shop and immediately saw that the young man behind the counter had a hand very similar to mine. I was dying to ask him why his hand was like that, how he dealt with it. But I couldn’t. This was the first time that I had laid eyes on him and we hadn’t even exchanged the normal conversation of customer and salesperson. Silently, I role-played how I would start the conversation: “Hit three copies, single sided, please. Oh, and by the way, my hand is like yours! Want to grab coffee?” I knew all too well that in an inappropriate context, even the most sensitive question rubs the wrong way. I got my copies and left without saying anything.

Even when the setting seems appropriate, it can be difficult to ask. Several years ago, the Boston organization, Partners for Disabled Youth, hosted a party where I met a young woman, my age. When I noticed her hand, I felt at a loss for words: “How do I ask?” I thought. What if she doesn’t like to talk about it? What if she starts to cry? I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t yet learned how to use language to make a connection, rather than to pry.

With a new understanding of how hard it is for others to ask, I try to be empathetic if the questions are posed insensitively. I don’t believe that people are purposely hurtful. Once, on a second date, an otherwise intelligent and tactful guy inquired whether my left foot was the same as my left hand. On the flip side, a sensitively-asked question can leave me smiling inside. A distant cousin whom I met on a recent trip to Israel asked me the most beautiful question: “What are three things that you have learned because you were born that way?”

I am finally reaching an equilibrium on the continuum between inquisitiveness and sensitivity. One day, standing in front of one of the Cybex machines at my gym, I spotted a woman with a hand that looked vaguely familiar. This time, I decided to say something. This time I mumbled a silent prayer for the right words, the right amount of sensitivity. “I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but I’ve been watching you use these machines. My hand is quite similar to yours and I have some trouble grasping onto some of the bars. Perhaps you could show me how you manage it.” The words stumbled out, I felt self-conscious. But I said it! And she responded amiably: we began meeting for workouts, and she has taught me some valuable pointers. I have never felt it necessary to ask her what happened to her hand.

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