Growing Up with a Limb Difference

by Simone Illger

I was born in 1962 with shortened arms and legs as a consequence of the drug thalidomide, taken by my mother when she was pregnant with me.  Both arms are shortened to elbow length and my legs (femurs) are shortened by about 20cm both sides.  I have no thumbs to grip so my dexterity is impaired, and because of my shortened legs my mobility is impaired.

Although my appearance as a baby attracted many stares and questions, my mother was not afraid to show off her newborn, happily taking me to the clinic to have me weighed and not worrying about undressing me there, although she was told she could leave my clothes on if she wanted to. 

I probably have a lot to thank her for, as people staring at me because of my 'difference' has never caused me distress or embarrassment.  In fact, the only embarrassment for my mum was that I was such a show-off! I liked nothing more than performing to an audience who would encourage me to perform to them.
Simone Illger

I can't remember being frustrated by my impairments when I was younger.  As you might gather, I got no 'special' treatment from my mum.  She treated me absolutely no differently to my two younger sisters (two and three years younger than me).  She urged others, such as my grandparents, to do the same.  I had no excuses to get out of doing my share of clearing up toys or, as I got older, helping with household chores such as washing dishes. 

Between the ages of four and seven years, I attended a local school for disabled children.  My mother was advised that they would be better able to cope with my needs.  My physical needs were well-catered for as I learned how to dress myself independently and use the toilet with adaptations designed for my use. 

However, mentally I wasn't being challenged, as so many of my classmates had developmental disabilities.  Although I didn't spend long at the school, I carry many memories from my time there - sadly not happy ones.  It was quite a traumatic environment with many confusing and distressing moments for me, witnessing things that a young child shouldn't have to see. 

At the age of seven, I was moved to the primary school that my sisters already attended.  I became the subject of questions and torments from other children at the school.  I quickly learned to laugh off their taunts and the other children started to see past my physical looks.  I was the class clown and wasn't short of playmates. 

Secondary school provided more of a challenge, as it meant 'fitting in' all over again.  I struggled with the huge distances that I had to walk between classes.  I was encouraged to join in every lesson - physical education (where I was allowed extra time to get showered and dressed at the end of lessons), cookery, art, needlework, woodwork and carpentry.  I really don't have any bad memories of my school days at all.
Simone Illger

It has been said to me on more than one occasion, "you've adapted really well!".  This is something that people don't seem to understand.  I haven't adapted.  I do things in the way that I do them.  To onlookers, it sometimes looks as though I am struggling.  For example, getting money out of my purse, I am often asked if I need some assistance. 

The fact that my wrists don't articulate the way that most people's do and lack of thumbs does make a lot of tasks quite difficult.  I don't find myself getting frustrated that tasks take me so much longer.  It's how it's always been.