Special Needs Adoption: Limb Differences


When my husband and I first considered China adoption we were told we’d wait roughly six years for a child. It seemed our journey was over before it started, but our adoption agency suggested the special needs program (shorter wait). I had two things to say about that: Hell and no.

I was intimidated by “special needs.” Special needs were something you handled if those were the cards you were dealt. You know, the whole “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle” perspective. I knew there were people who raised their hands to parent special needs kids…I didn’t think we were those people. But before we ran screaming from the room, we took the time to learn what we were turning down.

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The conditions listed under the umbrella of China special needs adoption program range from pretty much nothing, like a missing thumb to more complex conditions, like Spina Bifida. Families choose what medical needs they were comfortable parenting. We did research, took deep breaths, and jumped in the deep end of special needs adoption.

It’s hard to get our heads around the fact that certain cultures classify minor imperfections as special needs. I don’t say that to spark a discussion on how lousy the Chinese are for this line of thinking, because I don’t see it like that. I tell you because it might change your thinking about whether a special needs adoption fits your family.

Early in our “paper pregnancy,” we got a list of different needs and conditions. We had to check boxes to indicate if we’d be open to certain issues. Listed was “limb differences.” Having no clue what that meant I summoned my private physician, Dr. Google. I learned: …congenital (born with) absence or malformation of limbs. May result from injury or disease requiring amputation. The causes of congenital limb differences are frequently unknown…I thought “we could handle that” and checked the box. A few weeks later, I was staring at a picture of a seventeen-month-old boy whose special need was “congenital hand abnormality.” I fell hard for this kid in the picture.

And here I am. So, what’s life with a limb difference kid like?

My son is four now. He’s missing his right hand (he has a stub and four finger nubs). “Get down!” and “don’t touch!” fly out of my mouth about sixty-trillion times a day. No different from any other mom of a small terror I mean boy, hmm?

He can climb a ladder, catch a ball, and open anything he’s generally not supposed to have. He can put the smack down on his brother, snatch toys from other kids and dangle them enticingly out of reach till the other kid cries (I’m so proud). He most recently got in trouble for swiping my Kindle, slathering it with body lotion and pretending it was a baby. I have used many adjectives to describe my boy terror (some have four letters). Handicapped was never one of those words.

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My son is growing up adapting his environment to his anatomy. Buttons and shoelaces are challenging, but he’s mastered pushups at the tender age of four. I have zero doubts that my little fireball will conquer he sets his sights on.

The hardest thing about parenting a limb difference kid is managing my reactions to people’s stares or comments. Kids are curious. They want to look, ask “why” or want to know if “it’s an owie” (most adults can figure out it’s a congenital thing). Kids take my explanation of: “this is how he’s made” at face value and press on scaling the jungle gym or trying to take back whatever toy my little grabber just swiped from them (sigh, we’re working on that).

Occasionally, we’ll get rude or ignorant. A boy of about seven screamed “OMG did you SEE that kid’s hand” at a volume probably heard in the next county. A woman on the bus acted as if she’d seen Sasquatch and remarked audibly “how gross” to no one in particular. It’s hard to be chill and not give these people the verbal smack down (or trip them and pretend it’s an accident). Even though my instinct is to rush to my kid’s defense when someone says something tacky, I don’t do it. If I police every dumb comment, my little boy won’t learn his way in a world where people are sometimes just assholes.

People are going to notice his anatomy is a little different. He’ll have to learn his own way of handling comments, especially ugly ones. We all want life to be easy for our kids and sometimes it’s hard to see him standing out when he’d rather fit in. My son’s limb difference isn’t always the first thing people notice, but eventually, they notice. Reactions range from no reaction at all to friendly curiosity. Mean has been a rarity. I haven’t seen anyone tease him yet, but I’m sure that day will come, probably when I’m not there to witness it (kids are sneaky like that, ya know).

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There is no “cure” for limb differences. Maybe someday there will be technology to grow a hand in a lab but we’re not there yet. I can’t name one thing he can’t do that would be enhanced by a prosthesis so we’re holding off until he’s older to decide on that. A cosmetic semi-functional “slip on hand” that looks and feels real (in kind of a scary way) will be an option when he’s bigger. We are leaving the decisions in his court.

He refers to his little hand as…well, his little hand. Right now, he’s happy to show you if you want to look. “It’s just my little hand” he’ll tell you and then moves on to telling you he likes your pretty dress and asking if you have candy in your purse. He’s kind of a player like that. We sometimes call it his “lucky fin” like Nemo. This is how I sometimes explain his limb difference to children. I’m happy Disney came up with a more relatable limb difference role model because otherwise, we’d be stuck with Captain Hook and everyone thinks he’s sort of a douche.

Related post: The Beauty of Imperfection 

About the writer

Jill writes about adoption, motherhood and midlife on her blog, Ripped Jeans and Bifocals.  She lives and works in sunny San Antonio and enjoys dry wine and dry humor.  She’s regular contributor to The Huffington Post and Blunt Moms and a BlogHer 2015 Voice of the Year. She willingly answers any questions that end with “would you like wine with that?” Hang out with Jill on Facebook and Twitter.

From Around the Web


Pamela L (Rookie Parenting) 1 year ago

This is so amazing. You’re an amazing mom! Thank you for sharing.

Jill 1 year ago

Ha ha – right? I can tell a little kid who is curious “see, it’s just like Nemo’s lucky fin” and it’s a nice teaching moment. I don’t think I’d be comparing my four-year-old to Capt Hook to promote understanding of limb differences. Just not the same thing!

Jill 1 year ago

How awesome to hear that! Thank you!

Jill 1 year ago

That’s awesome. I’m glad Jack’s family was so proactive in reaching out to his class to help them better understand. I may have to look at doing something like that when Zack starts school.

Danielle Fritz 1 year ago

“I’m happy Disney came up with a more relatable limb difference role model because otherwise, we’d be stuck with Captain Hook and everyone thinks he’s sort of a douche.” LOL that cracked me up! This is such a great article

Gen 1 year ago

Reading this article was kind of funny because it’s so true. Eventually people come to see boys like this as they are and the “little hand” becomes less of a deal. There’s a little boy in my neighborhood who has a little hand, too, and honestly I look more at his beautiful coppery-blond hair than anything else about him! I don’t think he’s ever had a problem climbing ladders and playing chase – he is just a normal kid. With adorable hair! 😀

Carrie 1 year ago

I read your blog every so often, and now I know I’ll read it more frequently!!! I am mom of a beautiful 10 year old girl with limb differences on both hands caused by ABS. Nothing stops my daughter! She is spectacular, just like your son! Thank you for making that choice to bless your lives with a limb different child.

Jill @ Ripped Jeans & Bifocals 1 year ago

In the day to day, I don’t really think of it. It usually takes someone else’s curiosity to remind me. Thanks for the feedback love! I’m glad you liked & were inspired. That is awesome sauce!

Jill @ Ripped Jeans & Bifocals 1 year ago

Nope! No limits at all, right? We are looking at gymnastics for Zack, too! I can’t wait!

Her 1 year ago

What a cool program. I wonder if we have anything like this in the US. Thanks for the idea. =)

Her 1 year ago

My kid also has hand issues. He is missing digits on one of his hands. When we got the call from our adoption worker she told us that he was healthy and happy and (pause) has a small deformity. My imagination went into overdrive wondering what he might look like. I started googling “missing digits” as soon as we got off of the phone.
When I saw the hand I was a little worried. It took a week before I stopped noticing it. Now I rarely think about it. At 5 months old he grabs things, holds his bottle and generally behaves like any other 5 month old kid. I came across your article this morning and it brought me to tears. When I saw the image at the top, my eyes welled up … it looks very similar to my kid! I rarely see images of kids missing digits, hands, etc. in my mainstream life (I’ve joined several groups specifically for these issues).

THANK YOU for writing such a wonderful article that gives me hope! =)

Barbara Caldwell 1 year ago

A mother in my kids school had an arm missing just above the elbow. It had two little buds on it. You would not believe what she could do with those two little buds! We once worked in the school cafeteria together. She could clean veggies, chop, serve meals, anything. This woman was a lab assistant in a hospital, and did excellent work.

Billie 1 year ago

He is adorable.

Ashley 1 year ago

My daughter (now 7 1/2 months and our youngest of 4 children) was born with a right arm below the elbow congenital amputation. We don’t know why, and we never will. What we do know however is that she’s awesome! We watch her every day learn something new. She claps, she holds toys and pretty soon she will crawl so she can keep up with her 3 year old sister. In the next week or two she will also reeive her first prosthetic arm. The earlier they start using one the easier they adapt to one later in life. We are in the War Amps Champ program and have adopted their moto “it’s what left that counts.” It truly is and I have now met so many other children and adults just like my little girl and they are truly no different than anyone else when it comes to what they are capable of.
I love this story and I love that it was shared. Thank you!

Jenifer Liborio Okamoto 1 year ago

Precious, precious boy!! so handsome :-)

Kinjal Shah 1 year ago

She’s adorable!

Sue King 1 year ago


Brandi Grandaw 1 year ago

Awe, thank u Grace!

teter 1 year ago

I love this! My daughter was born without her lower left leg. We call it her nub and she is very proud of it. She lovea her prosthetic and picks out different patterns for it.

Liz Smith 1 year ago

Loved your article and your attitude! Our daughter has lots of scarring from a fire (before she came to us) and is missing most of her right hand. She’s 10 and has dealt with the stares, questions, and comments for 8 years. Her strategy is to make the first move – she’s extremely outgoing and just starts talking to people, kids and adults. She doesn’t like to answer questions so we’ve been telling people that for years and now she’ll say it herself. “I don’t like to talk about it.” She’s had multiple surgeries, and faces many years more. We don’t know where she gets her drive and spirit – but it’s her saving grace.

Lisa 1 year ago

I love this story. All of you are amazing.

Katie 1 year ago

This article is beautiful and so is your son

Linda Jayne Spray 1 year ago

I’m sure it’s normal to do a double take or be curious, but I genuinely don’t understand how someone could say something so crappy to another person :(

Julie 1 year ago

Very informative. He’s a lucky little guy to have such wonderful parents.

Jill @ Ripped Jeans & Bifocals 1 year ago

I love that you quoted Mama Gump! That is one of my favorite movies and I spout off a Gump-ism about once a day! Thank you for reading!

Jill @ Ripped Jeans & Bifocals 1 year ago

Thank you for sharing that with me! I actually live in England and I’d not heard of her. Very cool.

Lesley Robinson 1 year ago

My oldest son also has a ‘limb difference’. He was born with a partial left hand with 5 nubbins. He now has 4 nubbins. We had an unfortunate accident in a crowded public pool when a nubbin fell off. He was around 5. At the time it was as awful as you can imagine. Now, looking back, I can’t think about it without laughing. The amazing part is that I did find that nubbin in the pool. We were not able to reattach it so we fulfilled his request and buried it in the backyard, full blown ceremony with ice cream at the end. Anyway…my heart breaks when I hear that China labels ‘limb different’ kids as special needs. My son (now 13), your son, and others like them, are only hampered by what others think they can’t do. You’ll find, as we did, that there will be very few people like this in his life. Thank you for sharing your story.

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Janiece 1 year ago

As the mom to 3 adopted ” special needs”, one with a limb difference, I appreciate what you are saying. Most of our issues come from others too. I personally tell my kids their only limitations are in their minds. I can’t imagine my life without my children. Best thing I have ever done in my life was adopt these 3 beautiful blessings!

Teresa Maass 1 year ago

My son was born with a cleft…pretty extreme for one side, his jaw was twisted into his nose. I love the questions from young children, why? Does it hurt him. We even took him to my daughters first grade class and explained the defect to them. There were of course a lot of stupid comment ‘he looks like a monster’ and accusations ‘you must have drank too much coffee’ (at that point I didn’t drink coffee). I learned a lot about people and I lost friends, because they couldn’t look at my son. As far as teasing from peers, it just started in the second grade. The kids are making stupid comments about his lopsided nose. It bothers me more than it bothers him, he just tells them he’ll get a new nose when he is 17

Kate Swenson Cinnamo 1 year ago

My husband was born with a limb deficiency and is missing his right hand and part of his forearm. He’s never used a prosthetic and you’d never know that he WAS missing his hand. Our kids are young enough that they don’t notice and when they do, we’ll explain the difference to them and they’ll continue to love him just the same. And yes, there are plenty of a-holes out there who stare when we’re out in public, but that’s too bad for them. I like to think of myself as my husband’s “right hand man.” :)

Kim Marques 1 year ago

I’m not sure how anyone could get so hung up on his hand that they’d comment that way. In the photo I couldn’t stop looking at that adorable face and contagious smile. What a cute kid (even if he is a boy terror 😉 ).

Renee Spencer Little 1 year ago

My daughter is also adopted from the China special needs program. She’s missing the tips of two fingers on her left hand

Barbara Bartoli 1 year ago

That little boy is the cutest thing ever!! Great story!!!

Mary Mavros 1 year ago

I was devastated the first time someone referred to my child as “special needs,” even though she had recently been diagnosed with Autism. After reflecting on it for several days, I realized that none of us are prefect beings. We ALL have special needs. Society puts a label on some, and others are left to figure out for themselves. There really is no difference.

Brandi Grandaw 1 year ago

I love this! Learning that my daughter was going to be born with an upper limb difference was scary and I was filled with worry about the challenges she would face but as soon as she was born all that worry flew out the window. Something just came over me reassuring me everything was going to be ok and it has been. In fact it’s been great! She is 3 now and has done everything she’s ever wanted to do. There hasn’t been one thing she has needed help with despite the fact her right arm is much shorter then the other, with a not so strong wrist and only two fingers:-). She has floored me with her confidence and independence since the day she started crawling and eating and I couldn’t be prouder! Just the other day I was at the park with her and my other daughter and I look up and there she is hanging from the monkey bars with one hand and one elbow! I know the sky is the limit for her and can’t wait to see what she amazes with me next. I still have days of anxiety about the teasing and stuff but believe it or not we have found that to be very very rare. In fact non existent. We go to parks, fairs, waterparks, and she has been to preschool with her sister and nothing. A couple kids asking me what happened and after I told them, back to playing with her they went:-). I know it won’t always be like this, I know we will run into some jerks a long the way but both my daughters know that when someone says something hurtful to someone else it’s says nothing about you and everything about them. I was teased in high school for not having boobs, (if they could see me now;-) and I know it hurts. In fact I don’t know one kid who hasn’t been teased at some point. We all hurt the same, but we just have to learn to push through it and that’s the tough part but a fact of life eh? And we need to always remember the kindness of the many others always out weighs the negatives! Thank you for sharing this, what a handsome young man, even if he is a swiper:-)!

Trianna Landon 1 year ago

Yes!!! My son has Down Syndrome and I HATED when people would say that to me! Thankfully, now that he’s one, everyone I know accepts that he’s just Thatcher, and we can talk about how awesome he is, instead of how many chromosomes he has.

Vanessa Battles 1 year ago

Funny how things work out! Special needs, high risk, foster-adoption, here. Basically all the things I meant when I told my husband, “Okay, we can check out adoption through the county, BUT I will NOT…”
And they are wonderful, in all the ways bright, brave, silly, and sometimes disgusting ways that little boys are wonderful.

Jennifer French 1 year ago

My daughter (now 9) was born missing her left hand and forearm. There is NOTHING she can’t do. She ties shoes, paints her own nails, styles her hair, plays LAX and does gymnastics. She too calls it her little arm and is happy to tell people, ” this is how God made me and he doesn’t make mistakes”. Thanks for sharing this post.

Ruth Admal 1 year ago

All humans have special, unique needs. I have never been a fan of that term. This child is absolutely adorable. Normal is as normal does….so would say Mother Gump.

Christine Roussin 1 year ago

He is so adorable, I didn’t even notice his little hand until I read the whole article and scrolled back to look. ☺

Carly McPherson 1 year ago

The whole”God only gives you what you can handle” is referring to temptation not the health and well being of your child. My daughter doesn’t suffer through her issues because we are stronger than the families of her normal peers. As a Christian, I belief God helps us handle what we are given but I call BS on the other. Kudos to this family!!!

Sofie Lion 1 year ago

beautiful article, very touching.

Lori Therrien Fairbanks 1 year ago


Cynthia Lingley-Boudreau 1 year ago

This is an uplifting story. There was a boy missing a hand in my son’s preschool class. It was a great opportunity for this boy named jack to share his story and for the kids to ask open question to him and his mom. They soon realized that: 1) No it didn’t hurt him, 2) yes he could still do all of the things that the rest of the kids do and 3) he was a great kid with a great sense of humor. I am so happy my son had the chance to meet Jack at such a young age to learn that all differences were not disabilities.

Shivi Kour 1 year ago

What an adorable boy..I saw his cute face but didn’t notice his hand at first…god bless him n his awesome parents!

Tara Sander 1 year ago

I love this article!!

Michelle Jasper Gilbert 1 year ago

What an adorable little boy! My son has special needs as well, he is missing part of his 5th chromosome. At 6 he doesn’t walk or speak and he had a feeding tube. The looks and comments are the hardest part, because although it may not be what we expected, he is the light of my life!

Erika Frankel 1 year ago

A perspective on that whole “god doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle” comment. I am a mother to a special needs kiddo, she is autistic. I have seen many parents not handle their children’s diagnosis and many that step up to seemingly impossible circumstances. Less to do with god and more to do with the individual person, so it seems to me it is a cop out statement designed for people that don’t have any idea what to say to a parent of a special needs child.

Bianca 1 year ago

He’s just gorgeous – what a ray of sunshine! We have a preschool children’s TV presenter here in the UK with a congenital arm defect and aside from some douchebags who complained at first about her “scaring their children”, she was really well received. I think it’s great for children to see that not everyone is blessed with perfect limbs but they can still be totally awesome. You can read about her here: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/feb/21/tv-presenter-cerrie-burnell

Hope McGrew Vervoort 1 year ago

That little guy is insanely cute!

Nicole O’Brien 1 year ago

Interesting. I’ve never thought of my sister as special needs, and she has a little hand. We refer to it as that and she sometimes refers to memo as well. However, she has gone through some bullying by kids she grew up with, causing her to want to go to a magnet boarding highschool so she could start over.

Michelle 1 year ago

I saw his adorable face first and didn’t notice his hand. It took me three lines into the story to go look again. He’s so cute!

Jessica 1 year ago

My little brother has the same limb difference. One small hand and tiny stubs as fingers. He just went off for college two weeks ago. He’s been smart, loving, outgoing, mischievous, and just as much a pain in our parent’s ass as I am in every way. He also plays football and the drums. He’s no different from anyone else. And believe me, he is right on target with the ladies. A little too much, if you ask me 😉 I love that you wrote this to show that beneath what people term “disabilities”, we are all human and imperfectly perfect.

Betsy Argentieri 1 year ago

Another great read, uplifting :)

Mary Schneider 1 year ago

My cousin adopted a special needs baby. Jody has Down Syndrome.
She has brought more blessings into this family than I can count. When people say what a saint my cousin is for adopting her, I always grin, because her response is oh no, we are the ones who are blessed.

Keeva Williams 1 year ago

I applaud anyone that adopts a child with a special need. When it’s your born child it’s something you are dealt like this is saying, it takes a special person to choose that from the get go. I had to worry about stuff like this with my pregnancy from some medication I had to take and wondered if she would be born with a defect. So this is a thought that has gone through my mind for almost a year. Thank God there are people out here that are adopting these kids and giving them a good life.

Melissa M Mendoza 1 year ago

This is a great outlook and way to look at peoples differences. People will be rude and say things without thinking but I think this mom has it down.

jane doe 1 year ago

Your story made me tear up! Your little boy is a beautiful angel!


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