(Note: This is the third in a monthly series of "Living the WesleyLife Way" blog posts that spotlight extraordinary team members, residents, and clients. This month's post features Debbie Roberts, a team member at WesleyLife's organizational headquarters in Johnston, Iowa.)
Debbie Roberts remembers the moment she realized that she was different.
Different from her family members. Different from extended family, other children she played with, and people she saw around her hometown of Paton, Iowa.
"The word 'disability' carried a negative stigma when I was a kid," Debbie, 58, says. "So needless to say, I was very surprised to learn I was disabled."
Debbie, payroll administrator for WesleyLife, was born with what she suspects was amniotic band syndrome - a condition that occurs when fibrous bands of the amniotic sac get tangled around a developing fetus. Her left arm ends just below the elbow, and it was when she broke that arm at age 4 that her difference came into sharp focus.
"Until that point, I obviously hadn't thought much about my arm, but when that happened, I became really aware of what everyone started calling my 'little arm,'" Debbie says. "I was shy, and I'm sure I became a little more self-conscious."
Her quieter nature didn't cause her to doubt her own abilities, however. Debbie says she felt it was "very weird" that people would stare at her or ask about her arm, and she powered through potential challenges and tried everything other children attempted. She had worn a prosthesis since infancy and was an expert at maneuvering it to do just what she wanted it to do.
As Debbie grew older and became interested in boys, however, she wondered how her difference would impact her dating life, and she asked her mother, "Will I ever have a boyfriend?" She recalls that her mother smiled and responded, "I'm not worried about that. You'll have a boyfriend before your sister does." Debbie reports her mother was right!
Along with Debbie's high-school graduation came a desire to stop using her prosthesis. "I wasn't comfortable, and I think I rebelled a bit against my parents and wondered - although I didn't ask them this - why they were making me wear something that wasn't 'me,'" she recalls.
The young man who would become her first husband asked her, while they were dating, "Do you like wearing that? Why not take it off if it's just not comfortable?"
Debbie did just that, and as a wife and mother, she navigated life just fine with her "little arm." Her kids weren't bothered by the fact that their mom was different, and Debbie "carried things and changed diapers and did everything you could think of" despite her limb difference. Over the years, she noticed that limb prostheses were improving, and when she eventually divorced and remarried, her second husband encouraged her to check them out.
She did, and her "robot arm" period began!
When you meet Debbie, you're likely to notice her prosthesis: a smooth pink appendage with a black glove at the end. As she manipulates buttons on the device, the hand opens and closes, raises and lowers, and does essentially anything a human hand can do. It's such a part of Debbie now that her car's license plates read "ROBOGMA" - "Robo-Grandma" - and she says her grandkids are big fans of their grandmother's "special powers."
At work - as has always been the case in her professional life - Debbie says, "I just get in there and do the job." When she interviewed by phone with WesleyLife, she told the recruiter, "Just so you know, I don't have my arm," but she didn't anticipate any issues, and none arose.
"When I'm out in the world, people tend to stare - to gawk, even - and that can be hurtful, but at work, people are usually just curious about it, and I'm happy to tell them what happened and to show them my arm," she says. "I take pride in the fact that there's nothing I can't do, at work or otherwise - except maybe climb monkey bars!"
Recently, Debbie began advocacy work around her limb difference; she was instrumental in persuading Iowa's governor to designate April as Iowa Limb Difference Awareness Month. She is also involved with a group called Lucky Fin, which connects people who have limb differences; the group gets together once a year, and Debbie has enjoyed helping to reassure parents of babies who are born with a shortened or absent limb.
"When I went to Lucky Fin this past summer, it was like walking onto my own planet where everyone was like me, and I can't imagine how amazing it was for the parents of the little ones," she says. "It's wonderful to focus on body positivity and realize that a difference doesn't mean you're limited in any way.
"If I can help make this a better world for the next generation of people like me, I'll feel I've done my job!"
Post Topic(s): DIVERSITY