Ellen Keane: The best and worst things about having one hand

Because of the Paralympics I developed discipline and a confidence that helped me to embrace my disability and focus on what my body could do rather than what it couldn’t

Having a disability isn’t as terrible as it may seem. Of course there are a lot of bad things to deal with but there are also a lot of good things that “able-bodied” people don’t get. I was born without my left arm from below the elbow. The medical term used is Dysmelia and it is defined as: “the condition of having missing, extra or distorted limbs due to congenital factors” (at birth).

Unfortunately for my parents they were never given a reason as to why it happened, it was just one of those things. In my 23 years of living without two hands I’ve encountered a lot due to my disability. So I’ve decided to use this column to share my experiences with you because it’s important to look for the positives in situations that can create so much frustration and anger.

Below are just a few of the best and worst things about having one-hand.

Best: The Paralympic Games

The Paralympic Games is the story of my life so far. I had a talent for swimming at a young age and I was fortunate enough to find coaches who treated me the same as any other athlete. Because of them (and of course my parents) I was able to set goals, train hard every day, travel all over the world for competitions and meet some extraordinary people. Because of the Paralympics I developed discipline and a confidence that helped me to embrace my disability and focus on what my body could do rather than what it couldn’t. My body is strong – having one hand doesn’t change that.


Worst: Putting on a racing suit

As a swimmer I have specific racing suits for competition. These racing suits may be the reason for my retirement one day just because they are so tight and so difficult to get into. “Able-bodied” female athletes take roughly 10-15 minutes to get into a brand new racing suit. I take double that. And sometimes I can’t get into my suit alone. All dignity goes out the window when you have your bare bum in your coaches face as she attempts to help you pull up your suit. (Thank you Hayley.)

Best: Half price nails

My beauty routine is cheaper than those with two hands! I’m obviously not going to pay full price to get my nails done but I do always check in advice when I make my appointment. It can be a little bit awkward asking “Can I have half price?” and then having to explain the fact I only have one hand. Salons are usually sound, I’ve yet to encounter somewhere that refuses this offer and the girls seem to appreciate that little break they get when they should be looking after another hand.

Worst: People staring

I never noticed that I was different to anyone else until I began to notice society and how much people stare. Seriously, it's not cool to gawk at a 10-year-old kid for being different when you’re an adult. Because of this I developed really low self esteem and hid my arm beneath sleeves for the majority of my teenage years. As I was only missing half an arm a lot of people didn’t notice that I was different so it was easy to hide, it was easy to appear “normal”. I developed extreme anxiety when I was out in public and even in school. I was terrified to be stared at, to be rejected for being different and created this idea in my head that society would think I was a freak. It wasn’t until I started college that I had the confidence to go out in public sleeveless. Swimming gave me this confidence as there was nowhere to hide so I had to try and transfer this confidence to everyday life. The first time I did go without sleeves was the scariest day of my life but it was so liberating. I haven’t looked back since.

Best: Being unique

These days everyone is striving to be unique.

Once I finally accepted my body I realised how lucky I actually was. I could stand out from the crowd without even meaning to. This gave me an advantage over others when trying to get someone’s attention or trying to be remembered.

No one’s ever going to forget meeting a one-armed girl so I try to make that a good thing.

Every cloud . . .

– Follow Ellen’s journey to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games on Instagram & Twitter: @keane_ellen

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