by Richard Lucas Slusher
Here they come. It’s our first time meeting each other, and they approach me with a smile. As they get closer, they outstretch their right hand to shake mine. It’s customary. It’s the very first impression people receive of each other. It sets a tone for the encounter and the relationship. I put out my right arm to shake theirs. Suddenly, their facial expression changes from politeness to shock and embarrassment for a brief moment. They withdraw their right hand and extend their left. I quickly accommodate by changing to my left as well. The handshake couldn’t be more awkward. We try to shake off the uncomfortable shake and move on to the conversation, but the elephant in the room still lingers.
I have a limb difference. I was born without my right arm below the elbow, which is known as congenital amputation. Until 2021, I used a flesh-toned body-powered prosthetic hook with a shoulder harness to help me with tasks. Strained handshakes were all too common. I tried to imagine the shock and surprise of realizing you’re reaching for a fake hand. What do you do? Do you shake it? It was hard to visualize what went through people’s minds, but I imagine they’d rather play things safe and just quickly swap hands to shake my real hand, regardless of the awkward posture.
These interactions were mentally and emotionally exhausting. Outwardly, I kept positive about my limb difference. I didn’t let it stop me in life. Internally, I longed for a change. I longed for a day when people wouldn’t fear me or feel compelled to change their behavior so as not to offend me.
Last year, with some emotional support from my close friends and family, I began a journey to “upgrade” myself by acquiring a bionic arm. I knew that filing an insurance claim would more than likely be an emotionally draining, stressful, and toxic experience, so I decided instead to explore the idea of crowdfunding. Doing this required me to step out of my comfort zone. I would need to ask for help, which I’ve always avoided. Even more daunting, I would need to call attention to my limb difference, the opposite of how I’ve always lived. But I knew these were exactly the sorts of changes I would need to make once I started wearing the specific device I wanted—a Hero Arm by Open Bionics. I set my sights on it after seeing a video of actor Mark Hamill, most famous for playing Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies, giving personal encouragement to limb-different children. After researching the Hero Arm further and learning about the company’s mission to turn those with limb differences into superheroes, I knew I’d found my next prosthesis.
I received my Hero Arm in February, and it has lived up to its billing in terms of function. The arm is lightweight and the socket is breathable, which makes it comfortable to wear for an entire day (which I couldn’t do with my previous devices). I’m able to cook, pour drinks, open doors, and complete other tasks with far more ease than I used to. But my new prosthesis hasn’t just brought practical changes. It also has been emotionally liberating.
The Hero Arm has become an extension of my personality, and I’m constantly looking for ways to express myself with it. People notice the futuristic bionic arm almost immediately, and they’re drawn to it out of curiosity. Genuine excitement and awe replace the looks of tension and discomfort that my prior devices brought forth. People want to know how the arm works, they want to shake my hand, and they want to be around me. My self-esteem and overall body positivity are increasing. Gone are the taxing encounters I used to experience routinely. So are the days of awkward handshakes, the avoidance of eye contact, and the thoughts of “have they noticed?” when I’m speaking with someone while wearing my flesh-toned hook prosthesis. I’m no longer conforming to someone else’s standard of how I need to look in order to be accepted. The days of getting anxious about going grocery shopping or taking a walk in a public park are behind me.
In addition to boosting my personal self-image, the Hero Arm presents me with a unique opportunity to influence the community. Communication barriers are being broken, and I now have a chance to inform people about limb difference and adaptation. I believe these kinds of teaching opportunities are an essential step toward ending awkward-handshake situations once and for all—not just for me, but for everyone with a limb difference.
Such moments might also help move us toward better access to prosthetic care. Acquiring my Hero Arm did not come easy. As expected, insurance was not an ally and ignored my request to use the advanced technology. Insurance companies all too often have the final say over whether or not we can tie our shoes, pour drinks, and even walk. Amputees must prove to insurance companies that high-functioning prosthetic limbs are a necessity, not a luxury. It’s wrong. Most people are unaware of these barriers, however. I can’t count how many times I was told to “just use your insurance” while raising funds for my Hero Arm. Although I am and will always be extremely grateful to everyone who donated to my cause, the idea of relying on GoFundMe to obtain necessary healthcare must end.
My experience with limb difference isn’t inspirational. Rather, it’s a call to action—a wakeup call to change the dynamics of how disabilities are viewed in society, and how our healthcare system prioritizes and funds prosthetic devices. The cumulative effect of small, positive interactions about limb difference need to lead to major benefits via legislation, accessibility, cultural change, and media representation. Currently, only 22 states have legislation in place that provides fair insurance coverage for the limb different community. Amputees are widely underrepresented in film and television, and when we are represented, it tends to lean toward a villainous portrayal or “inspiration porn.” The limb-different community needs more advocates. We need to be seen as human beings rather than as people to feel sorry for or pray for.
I’m not saying that prosthetic devices like the Hero Arm are the only way to bring about positive change. However, our focus determines our reality, and if we feel boxed in by a prosthetic device that only results in negative reactions, situations, or mindsets, then change will never occur and stereotypes will never be broken. We all must work to break down the barriers that limit us from acquiring expressive limbs that change the narrative and encourage others to stand beside us and advocate for us.