Life without a limb: Paralympian Jessica Smith on how disability has helped her push limits

The sportsperson, author and motivational speaker talks about fighting biases and creating a more inclusive world


Somya Mehta

Published: Fri 11 Mar 2022, 5:05 PM

Last updated: Mon 14 Mar 2022, 7:19 PM

Born without her left hand and forearm, Jessica Smith went through a horrific accident as a toddler, leading to third degree burns over 15 per cent of her body. While circumstances like these hold the power to dictate the finality of one’s fate, Smith was clear to not let this be the whole of her story.

The life that unfolded since, from her early childhood, saw many lows leading to the great heights that Smith today enjoys every moment of. Growing up in Australia, Smith had to overcome many demons — the ones that reside within — to rise above her circumstances and take charge of the direction her life would go into.

Combating severe body image issues in her teens, she went on to represent her country in swimming, becoming part of the Australian Paralympic team in 2004. “Disability is as much of a mental battle as it is a physical one,” the 37-year-old affirms frequently, as part of her motivational talks across the UAE. An ethos she now aims to proliferate through her new children’s book series, Just Jessica, which seeks to create greater representation for people of determination.

The formative years

Growing up, Smith had no idea that she was born different. "I have three younger brothers, so I eventually became acutely aware that I was missing an arm. When I got into preschool and then school, it became a lot more obvious that I was different," says the Paralympian.

"Having scars on my neck and chest from the third degree burns I suffered as a toddler kept reminding me of the traumatic event I went through at the age of two. I became well aware that I didn’t look the same as other people. But there was a part of me that tried to push it down because I still wanted to be accepted. I still wanted to be part of my family, be part of society," adds Smith.

Starting school, Smith recounts, was a very challenging phase for here as her disability became the obvious thing for other children to point out. "This is why I've decided to write the Just Jessica children’s book series, to help other kids with or without a disability to really understand that differences in ability are normal part of life," says Smith, whose childen's book Jessica Goes to School will be available online and in stores, from March 15. "Everyone is different and the more we celebrate differences, the easier it is to have those conversations about acceptance and inclusion," she adds.

Combating eating disorders

Growing up, Smith never saw herself or any disability represented in the media. "You never saw someone with a disability portrayed in a positive way — be it models or celebrities. The only time you saw it was when it was depicted as an evil character in a movie or a book. There was shame and embarrassment that got attached to it," says Smith.

"I was always trying to hide my truth. In my teen years, dealing with the pressures of adolescence and the urge to fit in, I wanted to feel that I belonged but I never got to experience that. There came a point when I looked at my body, and thought to myself, my arms are never going to grow back. The scars on my neck and chest won’t fade away," she adds.

So, what could she really control? "This is when I asked myself what could I change about my body that would allow me to feel like I fit the societal norms or the perfect beauty standards," says the Australian parathlete. "Of course, now we realise these standards are ridiculous and outdated. But that’s what I was striving for. I thought finding acceptance through my appearance would make me happy," Smith adds.

Before she knew it, she found herself stuck in a hellish nightmare of anorexia and bulimia. But due to the stigmas associated with eating disorders, Smith found it extremely difficult to be able to voice her suffering.

Being a young girl with a disability, at the time, Smith already felt as though she was a burden to society and her family. "I couldn’t add one more thing. So even though I was diagnosed with it at age 14, I kept my eating disorder and struggle with body image issues a secret for over a decade," says the sportsperson.

But battling with the eating disorders destroyed many things for Smith at the time, including her international swimming career as a Paralympian. "It was easy to keep it concealed because I was training rigorously, so I was able to hide my compulsion with over-exercising and regimented eating. In the elite sporting world, distorted eating is very common as it is very easy to camouflage it with the intensive training that is expected from you," says Smith.

Body positivity

On combatting the mental as well as physical aspects of the eating disorders, Smith mentions, "One thing that helped me the most with my mental and emotional health was to have people around me who were very supportive. I eliminated toxic behaviours, friendships, online connections, people I was following on social media. It required working towards it every day, telling myself I was worthy."

We need to give ourselves this self-talk to empower ourselves and change that internal dialogue with those nagging voices, to be more respectful to ourselves, Smith believes. "When we respect ourselves and treat ourselves with kindness, we will receive that same energy from others," says Smith.

"One of the things I often ask everyone to try is to look in the mirror, in their own time and in the safety of their private space, and find something they like or love about themselves. This can really take a while and many people find it hard to do because so many of us have been conditioned to always see everything that we loathe about ourselves," she adds.

One of the most powerful things to have happened in Smith's life she believes, is when she became an Australian Paralympic swimmer in 2004. "I became part of a whole new community of people with disability — athletes with disability. These were the most beautiful people, the most articulate people I have ever met, who have had to overcome so many challenges already, going through adversity and gaining resilience through their experiences," says Smith.

"The journey has been so enriching. There are so many parallels I can draw from who I was as an athlete and as a Paralympic swimmer to everything that I do today in my life," she adds.

According to the Paralympian, body image is a term that’s often very misunderstood. "People think it’s about beauty and vanity. But body image is how we think and feel about our appearance. It includes race, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, mental health, our overall wellbeing. It’s not just about beauty and aesthetics, it’s all those things that make up how we feel about the person that we are and the reflection we see in the mirror," says Smith, adding how it’s not something one can find overnight. "You have to work on it all the time. And it’s worth the effort."

Terminology around disability

The language we use around difference and disability can be crucial in communicating our intent. But it’s not so much the words, it’s the intention behind them, Smith believes. "We can say the phrase ‘people of determination’ and that can be very positive and empowering, but not if the intention behind them is demeaning. I don’t mind the word ‘disability’," says the disability and body image advocate.

"I’m proud to be a woman with disability. It has given me so many opportunities rather than stalling or depriving me of chances. It’s these differences that light up the world. It would be so boring if disability wasn’t part of society. It adds to our conversations; it adds to humanity," Smith affirms.

The real danger, though, lies in making assumptions that people of determination can’t be physically strong, adds Smith. "Yes, we do things in our own way and it might be different to the way that people without disability do it."

"But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t strong. That narrative has to change. The media has a responsibility to change that narrative to empower people with disability, to encourage them to use their bodies in a way that makes them feel powerful. This is what swimming has given to me. A sense of freedom and a sense of exhilaration," says the Australian swimmer.

During her swimming career, Smith felt empowered to use her body to prove to herself and the rest of the world that she could do anything she set her mind to, rather than being limited by the assumptions for people in the disability community. "People with disability aren’t weak. We aren’t a burden. We aren’t part of a medical system that needs to be fixed. We are who we are. And we have our own strengths that need to be appreciated," says the Paralympian.

Creating a more inclusive world

Smith married her husband about seven years ago, for which she had to convert to Islam. "It was a showcase of love and dedication to my husband and our family. It was the coming together of the values and morals we both have, wanting to be a united couple, when we raise our children," says the 37-year-old.

"The whole journey continues to be a beautiful learning experience and one that I will always cherish. I hope that, together, my husband and I are able to pass on these crucial values of respect to our children," says Smith, who is a mother to three kids, Ayla, Reza and Idris.

Smith, who has recently authored a children's book, wants the Just Jessica series to be on every bookshelf to create greater representation for people of determination, by including them in the everyday discourse. "It matters that we have representation. I was never represented. I never saw a person with disability in the books I read as a child. Children need to see what they experience in everyday life in the resources they consume. And disability needs to be a part of the conversation," says Smith.

"These books offer a beautiful opportunity for families to talk about these differences. It was illustrated by Hasina Shafad, who is a local living here in Dubai. I feel so supported and embraced by the community in the UAE, so I’m very fortunate to release these books here," the 37-year-old adds.

Smith has also started her own venture Touch Dubai, which is an inclusive talent agency where they will create representation that translates into real opportunities for people of determination. "This is what I'm aiming to do with my agency but it's not just limited to that. It represents all people, including Michelin star chefs, musicians, Paralympians, CrossFit stars, who will then become an active part of the community," says Smith.

On her upcoming plans for 2022, Smith mentions, she aims to establish Touch Dubai as a business in the UAE that is transforming the way the society sees difference and disability. "We want to shake up the system here and make sure people understand that disability must be included. A person with disability must have a seat at every table, every board and every meeting," the Paralympian signs off.


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