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The First Time I Felt Like a Badass as a Person With a Disability

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“Hi, my name is Kelsey Lindell and I was born with a radial clubbed hand.  This means I’m missing my radius bone, making my arm shorter and bend in, and I’m missing two fingers.”

No, this wasn’t some bizarre version of two truths and a lie about my summer vacation. This was how my parents would have me introduce myself in front of my class on the first day of school, our best attempt to combat bullying and talk openly about my disability. Kids tease about everything, but the easiest targets are things they just don’t understand. This made me and gingers low-hanging fruit.

Confidence has never really been an issue for me. When you pop out of the womb missing fingers and half of your arm, you have two choices in life: take pity on yourself and live a life of insecurity, or own it and change mindsets. I chose the latter. At the youngest ages I remember being picked on and called names like a “three-fingers” and a “T-Rex” because of my special little arm, and even at that age I knew they were the messed-up ones.  I’d give them a stank face and whatever the 7-year-old equivalent was of double birds (which with the influence of my grandmother, was probably actually flicking double birds) and get on with my life.

It’s hard to believe that I didn’t combat it back more than I did considering what a little spitfire I am, but on the rare occasion I did I’d hit em with the classic, no comeback possible line of: “At least I can’t help my disability, what’s your excuse for being a d***?”

Of course comments like this stuck a bit. One of the counselors I went to explained it as the enamel on a non-stick pan: the first couple of times it slides off relatively easy, but over time comments wear and eventually things start to stick.

I was still confident, though, despite being terrorized. I was plopped on a stage in a tiny white and blue tutu and tap shoes at age 3 and worked it hard for all 2:57 of “ABC” by the Jackson 5. I, and everyone in the audience, realized then and there that I loved being the center of attention. My mom used to tell me I could sing before I could talk, and dance before I could walk. I used to think this was a beautiful and poetic and my mom had this angelic view of me as a tot, until I heard Amanda Seyfried butcher “Thank You For The Music” in the 2008 film version of “Mamma Mia” and realized she’d stolen the line from ABBA.

My parents literally never let me use my arm as an excuse for anything, and if I tried to say I couldn’t do something they’d go the extra mile to make sure I figured it out. As I grew older I received feedback from people who were surprised I could do basic, menial tasks. Eventually, hearing how impressive it was that I could dance, drive, cook, fill in the blank with task that you usually do with ten fingers despite missing two fingers and half of my arm became my normal.  Not the worst mindset, and definitely better than being self-conscious about my funky chicken wing arm.

My friends and I made up a name for my arm: Larry. To this day he has a Facebook fan club and is my favorite Halloween costume accessory. One year I was Captain Hook by simply dressing up as a pirate, wrapping my left hook in tin foil and calling it a day. I learned early on that if you can laugh at things, you take away any ground from people who would usually laugh at you. I just don’t take it that seriously.

In June 2011, I took my first yoga sculpt class in hopes of whipping my once upon a time ballerina bod back into shape after an Achilles tendon injury. You know that moment in the “Wolverine” movie, where he morphs into superhero mode and whips out his shiny little knife fingers out and is a complete badass? That’s what this moment was like for me.

Let’s be honest, my yoga practice looks very different than everyone else’s.  Teachers would come over to me in the middle of class and show me a modifications I could take to get a similar pose or motion,  honoring my capabilities and being mindful of the natural limitations I had.  They never tried to make things easier for me than the rest of the class, just different — and oftentimes harder.  Like I double dog dare you to do an entire class from your forearms, requiring you to use triple the core and leg strength because you can’t use your hands.

This was such a pivotal moment for me because if I tried to be like everyone else and do the class the same as everyone in the room, I would have been severely injured.  My pushups and planks would have been out of proper alignment and form, my tendon that was surgically moved on my right hand would have been crushed, and I would have been out of commission.  The teachers I worked with didn’t see me as disabled, but so able, and were creative in how we could work together to create a flow and practice that worked for me, challenged me and helped me become stronger.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but if I hadn’t fallen in love with this practice I wouldn’t have fallen in love with my little lucky fin.  Later that year, I moved to Africa and realized that mass murder is happening to children just like me. They have lucky fins, special chicken wing arms, beloved left hooks or another small way they were born funky, and they’re not just called a T-Rex or three fingers. In most cultures they’re seen as demon-possessed. They’re viewed as cursed or demonic. They’re physically restrained or hidden in the back of homes, or under floor-boards. Gross. I legitimately cry every time I have to write these things out.

What I once viewed as something I dealt with, I have now come to a place of loving. This poured gasoline on the ways my heart was ablaze with love for these children who were just like me physically, but unlike me, their lives are not celebrated.  All I wanted to do was to love these children, to kiss their little cheeks and tuck them into bed and give them a home, family and unconditional love. The amount of children this is happening to is overwhelming; not even Mother Teresa herself could care for millions of children all around the world.

I created Uphold Global so the incredible people I know in the USA who love and celebrate me and Larry could then go on to financially support other incredible, established organizations with people on the ground to save these children I was enamored with.

Becoming a part of the yoga world has saved my life in so many ways, but it didn’t just save my life and change my body image.  It’s helped save the lives of hundreds of millions of children all around the world.  Not just by changing my opinion of my own body, but by keeping me physically, mentally and emotionally healthy enough to run an international organization. At the end of the day I don’t really care that much about having the “perfect body,” because I don’t believe it exists.  I’m passionate about health and wellness because there are millions of tiny people who depend on me to be healthy and vigilant enough to fight for them.

Read more at Uphold Global and Kelsey Lindell.

Originally published: August 10, 2016
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