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Tisha's inspiring everyday life: No arms? No problem

Yahoo Lifestyle
19 September 2012

All of the things we do with our hands every day - from putting on makeup to driving a car - she does with her feet. And even though she starts every one of her videos by pointing out "And I have no arms!," her cheer, determination, and sense of humor are what takes center stage.

"If you're always taking the easy way out, then you'll never learn how to do anything difficult," she told Yahoo! in an interview.

The oldest of five kids - and the only one with a physical disability - Tisha was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and grew up "a little bit everywhere," she says. Her father's family is from Jordan, and she spent a few years in the Middle East before moving back to the United States by herself when she was barely a teenager.

In Jordan, "Everyone was fine but me," she says. "There are no opportunities for a handicapped American in a third world country."

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She went through physical therapy as a child, but Tisha credits her Mum with teaching her "how to do things without even thinking about them."

"She would sit me in the kitchen on the floor, and she had a special jar of beans or rice that I would play with," she remembers. "She'd open up the jar and dump it out onto the floor and I'd pick things up one by one and put them back in the jar." It was entertaining, but it also taught her how to develop the dexterity in her toes. At physical therapy, her mom insisted that Tisha learn how to do things the hard way - to drink from a cup without using a straw, for example.

She doesn't really remember feeling frustrated by her disability while growing up. "It's a combination of my own personality, my stubbornness, and my determination to do what needs to be done. And not a lot of people have that," she told Yahoo! "I kind of feel kind of sorry for those people, because they sit home and feel sorry for themselves." When people make assumptions about what she can or can't do, "I just prove them wrong," she says. "It's educational for them."

Her determination and independence are evident in her YouTube videos, where she shows the world how she navigates her life in St. Louis, from getting dressed in the morning (a tool with a hook helps her button her clothes) to washing her hair, putting on makeup, and even eating sushi with chopsticks.

[Related article: 'I was screaming in pain in my sleep']

"You've gotta be really patient, because chances are it's going to take you 10 times as long to do anything with your feet as than it would for someone with arms," she deadpans in a video about making a sandwich. After advising viewers to do a little stretching or yoga, she takes a running leap onto her kitchen counter, opens a cabinet with her shoulder, takes out a plate with her toes, jumps down, and carries it to the table by holding it between her chin and her left shoulder (which she calls "my nubs"), before delivering a mini-lecture on the importance of sanitation.

"Sanitation is key when using your feet, because there are lots of germs on the floor!" she says cheerily as she scrubs, with soap, at the kitchen sink and grins at the camera.

Doctors still don't know why her body didn't develop properly before she was born. "My mother didn't do any drugs," she told Yahoo!, referring to the rash of birth defects caused by the anti-nausea medication Thalidomine in the 1960s. "There was no explosion of chemicals. She didn't dye her hair or anything. It's just an unexplained event."

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She has little indentations where her arms are supposed to be -- she calls them her "nub sockets" -- and her right leg is about 8 inches shorter than her left. Doctors wanted to amputate her right leg when she was a baby, she explains in one video, but her mother wouldn't allow it. Now, she has a special prosthesis that fits over her right leg, to even out her gait while walking, but she takes it off to write, drive her specially modified car, and do work around her home.

"I have been using my feet all my life," she says. "They are my hands." When an infant is born without arms, her first instinct is to grasp at things with her feet, Tisha points out. "I didn't really think about it," she told Yahoo!

Cooking is one of the few things she finds a little bit difficult, but not for the reason most people would think. "The chemistry of it all confuses me," she admits in one video. "Putting ingredients together, it's very foreign. But I'm learning."

Last year, Tisha graduated from St. Louis Community College with an associates degree in graphic design; an artist with the Mouth & Foot Painting Artists, she uses her toes to draw and paint as well. "Right now, I'm a little obsessed with oils and water colors," she told Yahoo! (You can see a portfolio of some of her work on her Facebook page.) She's looking for a job and finding it difficult, not because she doesn't have arms, she says, but "because the economy is not so great, and there are so many people who graduated with me with the same skills."

She decided to start making YouTube videos to showcase her graphic design chops. Instead, the videos have become a source of inspiration for people from all walks of life.

"If I can educate more people to be a little bit more open minded about disabilities and conditions, then I've done my job," she says. "Not only am I educating abled people, but I'm also educating handicapped people to be more independent."

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