Natalie, age 29, lives with her husband Sam in Seattle, US. Currently getting her Masters degree in occupational therapy, she aims to specialize in working with limb different people of all ages. Natalie is also a volunteer mentor at Camp No Limits – an NPO that organizes weekend camps and offers support to children with limb differences and their families.
Born with a limb difference herself, Natalie’s right arm did not develop below her forearm and she has spent a lot of her life coming into her identity as a person with a limb difference.
Through her work with Camp No Limits and having found a whole new community she never knew existed before, she now hopes her lived experiences will be able to help others.
Here is her story.
What was your experience growing up with a limb difference?
My family have always been supportive and loving, and made me believe I could do anything I set my mind to. We didn’t ever focus on my limb difference, and we hardly ever talked about it.
Today our society still has such a long way to go on the ableism front, and I was growing up in a time when disability had even more negative connotations. In the 2000s and 2010s, disabled people were made to be almost invisible, as if we weren’t fit to be seen, and I internalised that. So I grew up pretending there was nothing different about me – thinking that if I believed it, everyone else would too. It took a long time to get past those feelings.
The funny thing is, I thought I was the only person like me. I didn’t know anyone or see anyone in the media – it was like my body wasn’t an option! We didn’t even have the phrase ‘limb difference’ yet, and without a word to describe it, how could I make sense of myself?
What has your experience with prosthetics been?
I didn’t use prosthetics until I was 14, when I started using a passive prosthesis – which is basically like a mannequin arm. Before that point I’d gotten every reaction under the sun – ‘What happened to you? Can you tie your shoes? Can I touch it?’ – and I was fed up with it all. I wore the prosthesis to stop the attention and questions and assumptions. While it wasn’t fooling anyone, it usually let me ‘pass’ as able-bodied for just long enough to let me make an impression of my own, separate from my missing hand.
The first time I put the arm on at age 14, it was such a relief. I remember stepping into a crowded elevator and no one did a double take. I was like ‘Yeah, I’ve figured this out’. Then soon after, I had my first kiss, and I thought ‘This can’t be a coincidence.’ (I also had just got my braces off but didn’t make any connection there.)
Even though the prosthesis could be uncomfortable and make daily tasks more difficult, I kept wearing it until I was 27. I never took it off while I was around other people – not even someone I dated for two years! I just went on pretending it was a part of me.
What changed your perception?
It’s been a multi-step process, helped along by an amazing relationship with my husband, therapy, volunteering with Camp No Limits, and finding the limb difference community through social media. All of it helped me see the strength and beauty in what we have – it makes us creative problem solvers, it gives us a unique perspective on life, it allows us to extend empathy to anyone who feels like they don’t quite ‘fit the mold’ for whatever reason.
The more I learned and grew, the more angry and frustrated I became at still feeling I had to hide my arm, and at the negative narrative I was buying into. I started to think, ‘What impression am I giving out?’
The first Camp No Limits camp I volunteered at was totally perspective-shifting, and soon after, when a few of the kids started adding me on Instagram, I realised my page didn’t show my limb difference at all. How could I talk about my experiences and support these kids if I wasn’t out there embracing my difference myself?
So I shared a post that showed my uncovered arm, and it was a huge moment for me. It opened up conversations with friends I’d never had before, and things just grew from there.
How did you first hear about Koalaa?
I love doing yoga and other workouts, such as HIIT and barre. Most days I need to get my blood moving somehow – it does so much good for my physical and mental health. Until recently though, I did these workouts at home using videos on YouTube.
But something that always bothered me was that I didn’t have a good way to balance on my hands or bear weight evenly on both sides of my upper body – for example, when doing push-ups, planks, burpees, or certain yoga moves. I tried to make myself something by adapting my passive arm and by using stacked pillows, but neither solution was great for balance or body mechanics.
Then I came across Koalaa on Instagram. I reached out to Sarah, one of the Limb Buddies, wanting to know if Koalaa’s ALX sleeve and Nicole tool might work. She said absolutely!
With a few simple measurements I did at home, Koalaa shipped my new device out to me. The process was so demedicalised, and I loved that.
When my ALX sleeve and Nicole tool arrived, I was blown away. The fact that it’s actually soft and comfortable made it unlike any other prosthetic I’d seen. It takes two seconds to put on and take off, and is so lightweight it almost feels like I’m not wearing it.
As I’ve been using the Nicole tool for yoga, I’ve found it’s almost perfect for what I’m trying to do, but not quite. I was so happy when the Koalaa team said they’d love to work with me to get the design just right.
It’s been amazing to be part of the development process and see how Koalaa puts their users at the center of their design. And to think I’ve helped make something that people with limb differences across the world can benefit from – that’s pretty awesome, too!
What impact has your Koalaa sleeve had for you?
I remember the first time I used it to do a plank. I felt both shoulder muscles fire up equally and my whole body almost clicking into alignment, I was like ‘Cool, that’s what this is supposed to feel like!’.
Suddenly I could transition between yoga moves quickly, and I had so much more balance, strength, and confidence in the positions. It made me think – why am I still doing this in the living room?
I went from following along with YouTube videos for years, to joining a hot yoga class (which is like regular yoga, but in a room pumped up to about 100 degrees). I convinced a few friends to join with me, and our weekly hot yoga session, followed by beers down the street, is now a highlight of my week.
That’s the magic of these tools – they open up opportunities to do things that matter, things that bring happiness.
After spending half my life trying to be symmetrical like everyone else (at the cost of my comfort and sanity), I don’t think our prosthetics need to be made in the image of a typical two-handed person. I think they need to be comfortable, affordable, and highly functional. I think they need to look cool and fit our personal style. Koalaa puts actual people at the center of their designs – that’s why I’m so excited about what they’re doing and where they’re headed.
From the whole team at Koalaa we want to say a huge thank you to Natalie for collaborating with us throughout the design process of The Nicole Pro - Natalie's feedback, which has contributed to elements of the final design, has been invaluable!