On the front page of the Style section of the Sunday New York Times (5/13/07) was a photograph of a young woman dancing in a Los Angeles nightclub in a mini-skirt and a prosthetic leg. The thigh looked like an elongated crystal ball, and the lower leg had a spike attached to a sandal-strapped foot.
The woman is Sarah Reinertsen, a 32-year-old athlete whose left leg was amputated above the knee when she was seven years old, the result of the tissue defect she was born with. She is a track star who was a contestant on CBS’s Amazing Race; she was also the first woman to compete in the Ironman Kona on prosthesis and has competed in marathons in New York, LA, New Zealand and London.
Sarah loves to compete against the “able-bodied” because “I get a thrill when I pass 2-legged people.” Sarah says, “People will always stare it’s human nature and it’s tough to be this animal in a zoo.” She turns the tables though and says look at me, “this is who I am if you have a problem with that, it’s your problem not mine. As soon as people stop looking at the disability as a total tragedy, they can ask about the cool leg I’m wearing.”
I was taught not to look at disabled people — “Don’t stare,” my Mother would whisper. I never realized that my ignoring it encouraged the disabled to cover it up themselves. I learned this from my friend Michael Aronin, a great standup comic who has Cerebral Palsy and is severely spastic. Michael knows people look at him as he jerks around and talks a bit funny, so he disarms them. I heard him tell a group as he flailed out onto the stage, “I don’t like flying anymore, I get stopped in airports and they ask me if I’m a Northwest pilot. Kids will ask you anything, I tell them this is what happens to you if you watch too much Barney.” Michael says, “When people see me for the first time, they see I’m OK with being me. “
Sarah and Michael are teaching us all not to run and hide from ourselves, rather to say look at me, I am my own best friend. Or as the Zulu proverb teaches, if there is no enemy within the enemy outside can do you no harm.