Personal Essay

Canada celebrates its diversity, but what if you're missing a limb?

Having one hand instead of two, Alexis Hillyard doesn't want to be your 'inspiration' — unless you're inspired to celebrate your own differences.

'Don't get me wrong; life without my left hand has been pretty great.'

'I know now that the best way to help Canadians truly celebrate diversity, will be by continuing to love and celebrate myself.' (Alexis Hillyard)

About 10 years ago, I met Sarah — a toddler already actively hiding her little arm.

We were connected through the CHAMPS Matching Families program, which fosters mentorship and connection between children and families with limb difference. My mom and I started with the program when I was about 12. By the time I met Sarah, we'd worked with many families.

I had never met a child like her.  At just two and a half years old, Sarah had already internalized shame about her missing hand.

I remember simultaneously feeling my heart break and my gut fill with rage, but also a wash of gratitude for the opportunity to connect with her.

'Welcome to my one-handed life'

Alexis, pictured here as a happy one year old, runs away from her dad. (Fern Snart)

Canadians are known around the world as "polite folk." When we travel, brandishing the Canadian flag on our backpacks, locals in other countries have come to expect kindness and generosity. But this is a stereotype, and it doesn't always represent my everyday experiences.

For example, it's not polite to help someone when they didn't ask for it, pray for someone to find a husband who will "love them anyway," pity someone because they are "different" or label someone an inspiration just for tying their own shoes. 

Welcome to my one-handed life. 

Don't get me wrong; life without my left hand has been pretty great.

Growing up I had positive role models (through the CHAMP Program) and a supportive family. My little sister and I would play "Biggie and Bebe" for hours. My stump was the hero (Bebe) and my right hand (Biggie) was the villain.

I am privileged to live in a country where people don't discriminate against folks missing a limb — for the most part. But even in Canada, and globally where many people do suffer due to their limb difference, babies are aborted, people are physically abused and families are shamed into keeping their children out of sight.

Alexis hangs out with her little sister, Ainsley. 'Bebe,' their affectionate nickname for Alexis's stump, was the hero at playtime. (Fern Snart)

I have not experienced these intense forms of discrimination. But the smaller, micro-level confrontations also take a toll.

Some days I don't have the energy to deal with the comments, the gaping mouths, the staring, the scared (or even just curious) children or the intrusive inquiries: "What happened to you? Does it hurt? I could never live without both my hands! Can you move it? Don't you wish you had two hands? It's amazing how you can do [insert everyday mundane action here] with one hand!"

Or the most cringe-worthy, "What's wrong with your arm?"

By just existing as I am... I can open space for others to be who they are, as they want to be.- Alexis Hillyard

Wrong? With my arm? Nothing. It's perfect. Just the way it is. I know this deep down, but it's amazing how these "far-from-polite" comments, questions and stares can erode one's self-confidence and self-image. They are predictable, however, since the dominant disability narrative in Canadian society is still that of pity, horror and even worse: inspiration.

When a person tells a wheelchair user that they are an inspiration for getting out of the house and going grocery shopping, this comes from an internalized, cultural bias that says being in a wheelchair is hard, undesirable and limiting. It automatically assumes that chair users are unable to complete basic life tasks.

This dominant, debilitating narrative about disability is (thankfully) being challenged by millions of folks across the globe.

I am challenging people's assumptions about one-handed life. And I've come to learn that this is absolutely vital for a kinder, more inclusive world for all of us.

'Look, we are the same'

'Stump on stump' in Haida Gwaii, B.C., Hillyard now celebrates her limb difference. (Alison Brooks-Starks)

Sarah and I got right to playing. She showed me her blocks. I showed her how I tied my shoes. I noticed her noticing my stump. Then she wanted to colour, so we did. I traced my hand and stump on some paper, and she wanted hers done too. I traced her hand while she continued to hold her little arm behind her back. She said "All done!" But I said, "What about your other arm?"

She cautiously laid her tiny arm on the paper. I traced it with exuberance and held up our two pictures. "Look, we are the same!" Sarah scanned from my picture to hers and back again.

She smiled. My heart soared.

Then, quick as bunnies, we bopped back down to the floor to play with the blocks again.

Watching her, I noticed she wasn't hiding her little arm anymore. She moved more freely in the space, in her tiny body, tackling tasks with both arms. In Sarah, I saw flashes of my childhood self. In me, she saw her little arm reflected back to her in a loving and celebratory light. She even wanted to see me tie my shoes again, and I joyfully obliged. I realized that this was exactly the kind of inspiration that I want to be.

Sarah taught me that by just existing as I am and moving through the world in the ways that I do, I can open space for others to be who there are, as they want to be. I publicly centre and celebrate my stump, I engage with people's questions about limb difference and disability. And every week I spread stump love internationally with my YouTube cooking show Stump Kitchen!

I know now that the best way to help Canadians truly celebrate diversity, will be by continuing to love and celebrate myself.

About the Author

Alexis Hillyard

Alexis is an Edmontonian, born and raised, and a self-proclaimed prairie girl and choir nerd. She loves the ukulele, swimming at the local pools, and cooking up delicious vegan masterpieces in the kitchen. Alexis is the star and creator of Stump Kitchen, her YouTube show that celebrates body diversity, gluten free vegan cooking, and the amazing, unique ways we move through the world.

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