People of all ages living with finger, hand and upper limb differences can be found worldwide. The Aussie Hands equivalent organisation in Switzerland is Pinocchio, and one young Swiss man is trying to share an often overlooked but important message for people living with limb differences.
An upper limb difference can affect body alignment and muscle strength in the arm, shoulder and back that can be hidden long term problems, not always considered in assessments by disability services like NDIS in Australia and the Invalidenversicherung (Disability Insurance) in Switzerland.
Rico Hunkeler was born and raised in Switzerland and has had similar experiences to Aussie Hands members in Australia. He went to a mainstream school and faced his own challenges. ‘People told me I was born with a strong character and that is why I have such a good attitude towards challenges in life. What they don’t see is all the work I put into myself,’ he explained.
Rico’s parents weren’t aware that he was missing his hand and arm below the elbow when he was in utero and the unprofessional reaction by a nurse left his mother in shock for a few hours and she was not able to hold him. ‘My mother still feels guilty about that today. Both my parents were a bit scared about how to raise me at the beginning but decided they would not raise me differently and have always loved me for who I am. They still tell me how proud they are and how much they can learn from me and support me by letting me do things in my own way,’ said Rico.
Rico was relatively shy growing up and was drawn towards those who were more reserved. He feels that because he was accepting of everyone else, they were also accepting of him. He explained: ‘I had to learn how to dress myself, how to eat, how to drive a car and most importantly where my place in society is.
In my opinion, it is never about the number of challenges you face but how well you handle them and this all starts with self-acceptance.’
One thing that most people with limb differences experience is the scrutiny by strangers. Rico said that, when he was younger, he felt uncomfortable when he tried out different approaches to things, and even though people say you will get used to the stares, it never feels comfortable. He added: ‘Once I grew older, I started realising that people are naturally curious. I also learned that maturity is not ultimately dependent on age but more connected to how people have dealt with past experiences. I feel that adults are just frightened children hiding behind older faces and chasing happiness. This made me a lot more relaxed and open towards people and new challenges.’
Some of these challenges can include eligibility and support by the NDIS disability service in Australia, and the Invalidenversicherung (Disability Insurance) in Switzerland. Rico said that he remembers receiving physiotherapy when he was younger and a prosthetic arm and a knob for his car’s steering wheel, however, he would often have to wait for a year to receive devices. ‘There are other drawbacks as I even had to send in videos of myself using my prosthetic arm as evidence that I really needed it – which I found very silly. These disability organisations cover the standard prosthetics and there are some very modern facilities that specialise in consultation and rehabilitation for people with limb differences, however, I had to pay for a particularly important prosthetic arm attachment for weight training which was very expensive,’ said Rico.
‘Due to that attachment, I am free from any back pain and they don’t have to pay for physiotherapy to take care of it. In my eyes they could focus more on prevention of likely upcoming health problems by supporting different sports, for example. However, they do a great job in supporting people who have lost a limb in an accident and need to change careers.’
Interestingly, Rico’s childhood inspiration was an Australian – Steve Irwin. He found the fascination with wildlife very relatable. Today, he follows a more spiritual path and is inspired by the Indian guru Sadhguru and the philosopher Alan Watts. Reflecting on this, Rico said: ‘They both helped me to reorientate myself when I thought I had lost my way and I was inspired to meditate and to concentrate on self-improvement.’ Rico is only in his early twenties, but he has already shown how he has grown and resolved a lot of conflicts and doubts within himself.
Through his website and training with a prosthetic, Rico has also inspired some adults with limb differences. He explained: ‘They reached out to me after they found me on the Pinocchio.ch website and were interested in how I train. After I met someone in person and showed them the exercises they could do, they decided to get a prosthetic arm too. All the effort I put into setting up my website was totally worth it for these encounters.’
There isn’t much information on training with prosthetics, incorrect posture, imbalance and misalignment with back and shoulders for people with limb differences. Rico continued: ‘I think the more information shared the more we can all learn and inspire each other for new ideas and ways of training. Everybody is different and the more exercises you can choose from, the higher the chance that you will find ones that work for you.’
Rico sees that most people with a limb difference who train, aim to replicate the typical movements in the gym that everyone else is doing. ‘Symmetry is the number one goal for people with limb differences, in my opinion. My back improved so much and I was able to correct my shoulder imbalances. Therefore, I recommend a short phase of using unilateral machines to start feeling your muscles `working` and then change to free weights for more natural movements,’ added Rico.
Last year, Hollywood released The Witches movie, based on a story written by Roald Dahl. It received backlash by many disability organisations for its portrayal of a witch, played by Anne Hathaway, with hand differences. The stigma of limb differences has been a long battle and it is disappointing that it was so negatively portrayed in Hollywood. Rico has taken another approach when he has faced discrimination saying: ‘In my experience of workplaces, the focus is on cost efficiency and productivity, and I have been judged to be slower and even at times incapable of doing certain things. People with limb differences should take the initiative to change the mind-set of colleagues and show them how good we are and what qualities we have to offer. If we manage to open their minds a little, we might have less problems integrating ourselves in work environments.’
‘Organisations like Aussie Hands are doing a wonderful job in raising awareness. People will accept us more openly if they have positive experiences with people living with limb differences. If we help children born with limb differences to feel stronger and more confident – they can change a whole generation – and every single one of us can make a change.
Be the best version of yourself and show that people with limb differences rock, and with the good memories you leave in other people’s heads they will give another person with a limb difference a chance,’ he said.
‘My advice for Aussie Hands kids, is that you don’t need to be overly strong and self-confident, but should observe everything, everyone, and especially yourself. You will see and realise that no-one is perfect. Learn who you are, who you want to be, and with that, self-confidence will come naturally. Knowing your own weaknesses and the weaknesses of others gives you strength to be true to yourself. Accepting yourself as you are and others as they are, makes you even stronger.’
Huge thank you to Rico Hunkeler for sharing his journey with the Aussie Hands family. If you are interested in learning more about Rico’s training with a functional prosthetic, visit: functional prosthetics on Instagram or his functional prosthetics Blog.
You can help Aussie Hands continue our work in advocacy by making a donation.
Thank you to Aussie Hands member Lily Toengi-Andrews for submitting this story from Switzerland, where her family now resides.