Haven Shepherd poses for a photo holding her prosthetic leg out the window of her car.
Haven Shepherd just recently turned 17, but she already has a whole host of stories about some of the comments strangers have made to her when she’s out and about.
Some people are well-meaning but misguided, some make assumptions they shouldn’t, some people even hand her money out of the blue.
All because she’s a double amputee.
“Good thing I’m a people person,” she said.
Shepherd is one of the rising stars in the U.S. Para swimming program. A versatile athlete, she made her Parapan American Games debut last summer and won three medals. She would have been working right now toward making her first Paralympic team had the coronavirus pandemic not happened.
She is also missing both legs from just below the knees, the result of a bomb detonated by her birth parents in a family suicide attempt while she was just a baby in Vietnam. Shepherd was adopted at 20 months old and started swimming when she was 10 in her hometown of Carthage, Missouri.
She shared some of the reactions she gets from people—the good, bad and downright odd—with TeamUSA.org as part of Limb Loss Awareness Month.
One story she posted about on her Facebook page not too long ago, although the incident happened in January. She was wearing pants, so her prosthetics weren’t visible when she parked in the handicapped spot outside a store and went in to get a snack. As she came back to her car, she said, she noticed a woman who was clearly trying to get her attention.
There are times when strangers approach her to tell her they think she’s brave or inspirational, she said. When she’s on the deck of the pool she can understand it. When she’s pumping gas, she said, it can seem a bit odd.
That was not what this particular woman wanted to say, however.
“She’s yelling and now I’m thinking maybe I forgot something, so I rolled the window down,” she said. “I didn’t understand what was going on and I said, ‘Lady, do you have a problem?’ and she said, ‘Yes. Actual handicapped people need to use that spot.’”
Shepherd then realized that with long pants, the woman couldn’t see her prosthetics and just figured she was doing something she shouldn’t and took it upon herself to correct her. Fortunately, Shepherd was wearing sweatpants and they were loose.
“I just took my leg off and held it out the window,” she said. “I didn’t say anything, I just held it in my hand. My boyfriend tells me I don’t hide my emotions well so I can only imagine what my face was like. She didn’t say anything and then it got awkward.”
Finally Shepherd said, “I am handicapped,” and the woman snapped out of her confused stare, quietly apologized and left.
That was unusual, Shepherd said, although she has noticed looks from people when she parks in a handicapped space and her prosthetics aren’t visible, especially if she has friends with her.
Similar situations at the airport are more common, such as the time that she was waiting for a flight home after a stint at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She was sitting in the handicapped seats and when an airline employee reached the gate, she asked Shepherd if she was on that flight and seemed to have an attitude.
“When she called for pre-boarding I came up and gave her my ticket and she just says, ‘No, no, no,’” Shepherd said. “I just blew up. I was so tired. I had jeans on and I just rolled up my pants and pointed at my legs. It was like, if you just said, ‘Sorry, you can’t pre-board,’ I would have given you the reason why I could instead of you embarrassing yourself in front of the whole airline and me proving you wrong.’”
On the more bizarre end of things, Shepherd said, are people who want to give her money.
“Sometimes people just hand me money. Isn’t that so funny?” she said. “I was in Target and someone came up to me and started saying, ‘I have a cousin who’s not really related to me but his daughter has a prosthetic leg and now I’m giving you $5.’ My friends were like, ‘That doesn’t happen in real life,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it does.’”
Overall, Shepherd says, she understands that while being a double amputee is normal for her, it isn’t for everyone. And while she gets people wanting to know the why and the how of it, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.
“(The wrong way) is more when people are abrupt, like I owe them an explanation,” she said. “I really try to think of it as I want people to be comfortable around me. The worst thing is to make people uncomfortable and then it gets awkward. I hate awkward. So when people ask me I just make sure the answers are vague because sometimes I don’t want to get into it, so I just say I had an accident when I was younger and I was adopted and now I have these legs. But I think if you are an amputee I just feel like you should just try to be polite because no one’s really trying to hurt anyone’s feelings. Honestly, they’re just curious what’s going on.”
Despite the current challenges of not being able to swim—Shepherd was excited the other day after washing a shirt in bleach because the smell reminded her so much of the pool—and see her friends, Shepherd said, things are going well. That’s another misconception people often have of amputees: that they’ve lived a trauma-filled life because they experienced trauma.
“Our whole life doesn’t revolve around our disability,” she said. “I drive such a cute car and I get iced coffee every day. I live a really good life, if I’m going to be honest.”