Armless in Kansas

       Living about 50 miles from Wayne, the one arm farm worker, was another individual whose circumstances were vastly more difficult.  Jerry was born to a farm family without either arm.  Not only were both arms missing at birth, but neither did he have much shoulder, a trans-scapular absence on both sides.   At referral Jerry was attending a regular public high school as a senior. 

No such thing as reasonable accommodations existed which required the schools to adapt and adjust their programs to serve Jerry appropriately.  The schools did everything Jerry needed to participate with all other students in all the schools regular activities.  Jerry was an average student according to the teachers in the school, although there were indications that Jerry had some tendency to misbehave on occasion. 

Jerry did everything with his feet.  Through the years since birth he developed sufficient dexterity with his feet to perform most of the usual activities of daily living.  He did require a few adaptations to perform many functions adequately.  He was unable to perform most functions from a standing position, as his feet were also his hands.   Shoes which could be put on or off readily was centrally important.  The major adaptation was to be able to sit well above his working area.   As he ate with his feet he needed to be elevated above the table in order to transfer food from the table to his mouth. 

He held eating utensils with his feet, brushed his teeth and washed his face with his feet,  and performed most all activities with his feet.  The school provided all the adaptations for him as needed to compete successfully with the other students.  He could read a book, turn pages normally, write legibly, and otherwise perform far more functions than one might expect.  These adaptations did not make Jerry normal, but for his parents and others concerned for his growth and development they went a long way toward helping him become self-sufficient, if not fully independent. 

On the negative side of the ledger, Jerry was unable to dress fully.  Buttons were a problem, pulling up and fastening his trousers was a problem, and physically being able to manage his daily bodily functions (urinating and defecating) presented serious personal and social ramifications.  Once dressed and fit for public display he did well.  He was, of course, the object of curious observation by all folks who saw him for the first time.  Most all students in the schools became accustomed to Jerry’s functions and limitations, and accepted him more fully than the average adult. 

Projecting reasonable employment objectives for Jerry was a serious reach.  He was not interested in education beyond high school.  While many jobs in manufacturing centered around visual inspection, a key function was to do something important with one or both hands as a consequence. 

In part because of high level interest in this individual by both the Kansas Vocational Rehabilitation agency and the Kansas Crippled Children’s Commission, the decision was made above my pay grade to see if artificial arms could be fitted to enhance Jerry’s ability to function.  I became Jerry’s point person in a planned trip to the hottest facility engaged in the manufacture and fitting of artificial arms, prosthetics.  UCLA was the premier center for this outing, a facility which could accommodate both Jerry’s living and proposed experimental adaptations.  While prosthetics development was in its infancy, Jerry was on the leading edge of the many unknowns at the time, an ideal experimental subject.

Because of the nature of the functions involved (arms and legs) it was well established that walking with a single artificial leg was fairly successful, although it is accomplished with many difficulties.  Replacing arm and hand function through artificial devices are miserable substitutes for what is lost, or in Jerry’s case never existed.  Under the best of circumstances artificial arms are assistive devices for the other arm and hand, which is otherwise normal. Jerry had neither arm, nor did he have shoulders to assist with the operation of artificial arms.  The vast majority of artificial arms are stored away in amputee’s closets.  Fellow Kansan, Bob Dole, wears one artificial arm and hand for cosmetic purposes only.  Jerry was not a potential Bob Dole. 

Arranging for the trip to Los Angeles presented an early warning of the many difficulties that lay ahead for Jerry.  Round trip air fare was arranged through a major carrier out of Kansas City.  Correspondence with the KC carrier’s office advised them of Jerry’s impairments in some detail, and requested their understanding and acceptance for the trip.  On the scheduled day of departure Jerry’s parents delivered Jerry to Hays, and I transported him from Hays to Kansas City in ample time to catch the flight. 

Commercial flights from KC to LA at the time required several hours non-stop, and the balance of the day would be consumed getting Jerry to Los Angeles.  As soon as the clerk at the airport saw Jerry without arms, the reaction was shock and immediate rejection.  Jerry could not carry his bag, could not fasten his seat belt, and who knows what else he could not do?  He was refused boarding by the ticket agent.  I displayed the letter which provided an OK to travel by the higher ups in the carrier, but this did not include the pilot’s permission. 

It appeared that all was about to be lost from all well laid plans.  The primary concern raised was the issue of toileting needs en-route on the plane.  Jerry and I assured the contacts that prior to boarding, Jerry would be fully evacuated as needed, which I would personally attend to.  The second assurance was that Jerry maintained a bladder capacity far greater than the average person, because of his adaptation.  These assurances were deemed to be inadequate for the person making the decision. 

Finally after conceding that we may be making an unexpected return trip to western Kansas, a pilot for the airline heard of the controversy.  He was making the trip to Los Angeles as a passenger only.  He agreed to accompany Jerry as needed on the several hour flight, and see that he was delivered to those meeting him in LA. 

After an hour or so of intense moments at the airport, I returned to western Kansas by myself. 

As a post-script, Jerry returned from many days of prosthetic experimentation at UCLA without any assistive devices, artificial arms, or other improvements in function. 

One intriguing episode from Jerry’s history was the notation that in spite of his serious handicap, a complete absence of both arms, he did manage to infuriate his family one day by stealing a family truck from the farm which he drove into town, several miles away, without incident.  The occupational complications this raises boggle the imagination.  In all likelihood, operating machinery in that era would produce a serious accident within days.  But all such projections are speculative.

Neither traditional thought nor thinking out of the box serves well when confronted by a person with feet only.  This era was well before the advent of group homes, which provide essential support for non-standard persons.  With some personal assistance, an individual with no arms should have many opportunities to engage productively, but this initial field counselor left the scene before the next chapter was written. 

Being armless is a serious impairment, even when everything else works fine. 

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