Interviewed by Veronica Farmer, author of @madebeautifulbyscars
Images by Arnaud Domange
I was born without a right hand. I have a wrist and the finger buds that we all begin life with, as we develop in the womb. For me though, that development did not continue in my hand past that stage, although the rest of my body continued to grow. It was a shock for my parents when I was born. No scans had told them of this news before my arrival but they had a determined focus on refusing to let that hinder me in any way. When I first started reaching out to the world, I did so with my right hand, so being right handed was probably my more natural focus, but I very quickly adapted and learned to do everything with my left hand.
My parents were sure that I could do anything I wanted to do, that I could achieve anything at all. Their view was that I would just have to work out a way of doing things differently and they were happy to support me to get there.
In Grade 3, the whole class was learning the violin. The teacher felt that there was no way I would be able to hold the bow, so it was decided I would do other activities at this time. My mother was not happy with this and contacted the Royal Children’s Hospital about a myoelectric hand. I was soon fitted for this prosthesis, that opened and closed along with my wrist movement. I was able to not only learn the violin but pursued it with passion. I completed violin exams and was invited to play at the World Congress Centre for the International Prosthetist and Orthotist Conference, with an audience of over 1000 people.
Horses were a big part of my life from an early age. My mother rode and my father has always been in the horse racing industry. As an 8 year old, I was determined to learn how to ride, but I couldn’t hold the reins in both hands and so rode with a knot in the reins, and rode one handed with my left hand. I had a passion for showing and dressage, but in order to do that I would have to somehow learn to not only hold the reins in both hands, but at some stage to hold two sets of reins (two in each hand). Through the early years of learning to ride when I had been using the myoelectric hand for violin, we (Mum and I) thought I should be able to use it to ride. I remember one day holding the reins with my prosthetic hand, and my horse starting to go a bit too fast for my liking! I fell off and by the time Mum came over to check how I was, fine but winded, we looked over at the horse and my hand was still gripping the reins attached to the galloping horse! We decided that maybe the hand shouldn’t be used for riding.
From what I had achieved with horse-riding along with the violin, I was awarded the Melbourne Junior Achievement Award in 1993 and was invited to be on stage with other award recipients, such as the famous Australian athlete Cathy Freeman, and was awarded a beautiful teak music stand by Rupert Murdock. At the time I was also invited to attend a private function for The Rolling Stones on their world tour. The words Keith Richards said to me, I will never forget “Keep doing what you are doing Kate. It’s amazing stuff.”
People have asked me if I experienced bullying as a child as kids can be pretty thoughtless when it comes to pointing out anything that sets you apart as different or unusual. I did have a little bit of that when I moved schools, a few kids like to ask me “Where’s your hook?” But my parents made sure all the teachers knew of my hand difference when I started at the new school, so this helped manage this quickly and I didn’t get too much harassment, none that I couldn’t handle. It did make me feel shy about my hand and embarrassed about it for a time. I would wear my jumper even on the hottest days so that I could hide it in my sleeve. I did this even into my teenage years. I didn’t really like being ‘different’ to my peers.
As a teenager I contracted glandular fever, which left me bedridden for months. Being a teenage girl, there are always groups to belong to that affect your identity. When I came back I found that the group dynamics had all changed while I had been away and I struggled to find my place again. With media so firmly focused on body youth and beauty, there are 70% of young girls and a growing number of men today struggling with eating disorders and body dysmorphia. I was one of them. For the next couple of years I suffered with anorexia trying to reach an impossible magazine standard, dropping to 38 kilos and was at the point of being hospitalized. It took me over a decade to regain my health and body positivity.
These days I am passionate about working with the Aussie Hands Foundation, an organization that supports children with hand differences. When I talk to parents who are as concerned as my parents were, about how their child will get through without being bullied or picked on, I find it is important to share with them truthfully that growing up is hard for all kids these days, hand difference or not. The impact of social media demanding perfect posed photos, hearts getting broken, brain being re-wired through puberty – it all takes a toll. There can be a tendency for parents to be overprotective of kids who have any kind of difference, whether it is physical, emotional or a learning difficulty. I think it is more about understanding that the tough moments will come, you can’t stop them. If you can gently guide the child to know that, and irrespective of whatever trouble comes, never let any kind of difference stop them from trying things or being brave, that makes all the difference in a richly lived life experience.
Over time as I hit my late teens, I became more comfortable and accepting of my hand difference. By 2006 I was competing internationally in dressage and had some success in able-bodied competitions. For a long time, I was told I was ineligible for being selected for the Paralympics or Para world events as I had a wrist. In a way, that was a blessing as it made me strive harder. After the details of my hand difference were presented overseas to the appropriate Committee, I was finally able to compete in Para-dressage. This filled me with excitement as I my childhood dream to represent my country had never left me and I had the passion and the drive to get there.
I made the long list for the Beijing Olympics but just missed out. In hindsight, my horse and I were not quite ready, but making the 2010 World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Kentucky was very exciting. It was a team effort, this goal, not just between my horses (Heatherton Park and Al Capone) and I, but also between my Mother and I. We were at home in the equestrian world and could speak that language together, sharing all the highs and lows as we went.
It was 2004 when Mum was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She had the lump removed but five years later it came back. I eventually became her full time carer and she was very sick. The World Equestrian games in September 2010 would be the first competition where Mum was not going to be there as she was not well enough. The carrier that was taking the Australian team horses pulled out last minute and that meant our horses had to endure a 72-hour flight and they just didn’t cope. Some handled it better than others, but my young horse was found to have stress laminitis, a painful and potentially crippling disease that can be fatal to horses. So, there I was, three weeks out from my biggest competition yet, and looking at my horse thinking I might lose him. It was touch and go....
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