(ABOVE: photo courtesy of Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation)
by Jack Silbert
Not all kids and not most dogs, mind you… but enough that I’m starting to get a bit of a complex.
Hi, I’m Jack. Maybe you’ve seen me around town — the guy with the robot legs. More precisely, I’m a bilateral below-knee amputee who walks with the assistance of prosthetic legs. Hard to believe I’ve been like this for nearly 3 years. Who knows if I’ll ever be totally used to it: I have a mirror across from my bed, and when I catch a glimpse of my stumps I often think “That’s kind of freaky” with a laugh.
And that’s partly why, last year, I decided I wanted to talk to kids and parents not just about disabilities, but about noticing differences in general. It’s a totally natural thing to do and we do it all the time. Whoa, that dude is super tall. Wow, her hair is incredibly curly. And when it’s something you’ve never seen before—a woman missing an arm, a blind person riding a bike, a middle-aged fella with robot legs—it stops you in your tracks a little.
In my case, kids (and dogs) are usually the first to notice, because they’re closer to the ground. Prosthetic eye level. And I’ve been fascinated to observe reactions. There’s a lot of staring, often with wonder. Sometimes there is pointing, followed by “Mom! Look!” Often I’ll get a direct question: “Why do you have those?” Which is cool. Kids are naturally curious and I’m happy to talk with them and explain the best I can. Or if they’re really little, like a small dude on the Light Rail the other day, I might just do a little dance and trade funny faces till we’re both giggling.
How a parent responds in these instances is really important. It’s one of those “teachable moments” you hear about. Most grown-ups I’ve witnessed have been calming and informative with their children. But not all, unfortunately.
So if you’re free, please come by the library this Saturday. (If you have never seen the renovated basement level, it’s pretty awesome.) I’ll tell my story and we’ll talk; perhaps most importantly, I’ll answer all questions, or at least try. Kids throw some interesting curveballs my way.
We had a great discussion at the library last year. It led to me visiting and speaking with Girl Scout Daisies and Boy Scouts in Hoboken and Union City, high school students in Brooklyn, and occupational therapy grad students at Kean University. I even got a shout-out from Mayor Bhalla at his State of the Union address this year. And it still took me another six months to get a disabled parking spot. Hey, that’s Hoboken.
Bring the kids; invite the neighbors. If you can’t make it but this sounds worthwhile, and you’re connected with a school or after-school program, reach out to me. Prosthetics or not, I’m the same person I always was — goofy, sometimes shy, admittedly sometimes a sarcastic jerk. When it clicks for kids that we’re all just people, that’s a step toward healing this increasingly divisive world.
Jack Silbert’s “Don’t Diss Disabilities” presentation will take place this Saturday, October 5, at 2:30 p.m. at the Hoboken Public Library, 500 Park Ave., on the basement level. The event is free and open to the public. For a reminder, RSVP on the Facebook event page.