013 questions to.. Emiel van Engelen who was born without arms: ‘I enjoy life!’

He took part in the ‘Je Zal Het Maar’ program, greets people with his feet and types with his toes as fast as you and I do with our fingers. We are talking about 29-year-old Tilburger Emiel van Engelen. He was born without arms. Yet he remains optimistic and feels like the king of Tilburg when he looks over the city from his studio. We ask (0)13 questions to this special Tilburger!

#1: So you were born without arms, how come?

“Yes, I was born 29 years ago without arms. My parents didn’t know I wouldn’t have arms until I was born. The ultrasounds they received showed nothing crazy, afterwards the doctors said they should have seen this. But it is also so rare, so I understand that they have not taken it into account. The doctors explained it in a simple way: in the first six weeks of pregnancy your arms and legs shoot out of the egg and with me it was only with my legs. But I think it’s an experiment of nature.”

“My parents decided to just try the ‘normal’ life, so I just went to a normal primary and secondary school. If things didn’t go well, I could always go to an accompanying school, but I adapted well. I am very happy that my parents have handled it this way, because now I have as normal a life as possible.”

#2: Are more people born in the Netherlands without arms?

“In the Netherlands there are five people like me. Of course you also have people who were born with arms, but have experienced something that means that they now have no arms. But really only five people were born without arms like me. I also speak to them sometimes and you notice that we all have the same attitude in life.”

#3: To what extent are you actually limited?

“In the eyes of others, a life without the poor is a very serious limitation, but I don’t experience that at all. Everyone has their thresholds in life and these are my thresholds. I actually don’t feel limited at all, although a lot of people think this of course. Everyone also thinks to themselves: ‘What would change for me if I didn’t have arms now’, but that is a wrong way of thinking, because I don’t know any better. And I hope that my immediate environment does not see me as limited or as ‘that boy without arms’, but simply as Emiel. I do need help with some things, of course, but I would also help someone if they need help. That’s what friends and family are for, of course.”

“I always call it a limitation, because a handicap sounds very heavy to me. And you know, at home I’m not limited at all. I can grab and open anything with my feet and toes. But when I walk down the street with my shoes on, you are more limited than someone who does have arms. In general I just feel like my peers, I can just text with my toes and I also like to game, I’m one of the best in our group of friends”.

#4: So you live on your own?

“Yes, I live all by myself in my own little studio. I work full-time as an administrative assistant at the Tilburg company DESTIL. I started as an intern and stayed there. All the steps that I have taken in life, I have taken myself. Without help from the UWV, benefits or whatever. And I’m very proud of that. Like everyone else, I had to work very hard for it. But with a disability you may have to go the extra mile to achieve things that are very normal for people without disabilities. At the company I now work for, they were skeptical when they first saw me. That is also logical, you are often already 1-0 behind. Now they don’t know any better and they are very happy with me. I can operate the computer with my feet and am just as fast as someone with arms.”

#5: How would you most like to be treated by people?

“I would like to be treated the same way everyone treats each other. People are quickly inclined to do everything for you, but if I really need help, I will ask for it myself. You do learn to stand up for yourself if you don’t have arms. But it also made me a stronger person. I know that I am often looked at on the street and I think that makes sense. Conversely, I also look at someone who has something striking. It only gets really annoying when people start staring or pointing at me.”

#6: You have also given a number of guest lectures at primary schools, do you want to do that more often?

“To answer this question, we have to go back a little further in time. I always lived in my own bubble and that was fine with me. Until more and more people said I should do more with it. Then in 2019 I participated in the ‘You will have it’ program. I’ve had a lot of positive reactions to it. After that I was approached more often by people who wanted to write something about me, but I make sure that I don’t become a caricature. After that, I started giving guest lessons at a primary school with children with learning difficulties, who often have the feeling that they are behind 3-0. That gave me a lot of satisfaction, so I definitely want to do this more often.”

#7: Do you think your life would be different if you had arms?

“Yeah right. But not in general terms, because with arms I would just have a job and live on my own. I’m also pretty lazy, so if I was born with arms I might be even lazier. Now I have to prove myself more I guess. So maybe that’s a good thing, haha.”

#8: Are there any benefits to not having arms?

“Yes I think so. I’ve been to places I would never go with arms, on TV for example. Look, you stand out a little more compared to other people. This can turn out positively, but also negatively.”

#9: Is Tilburg a friendly city for someone with a disability?

“I think so, of course many people already know me. And when I go somewhere alone, I know that I can always ask for help from people. Tilburgers are also ready for each other. I once walked home quite drunk and ran into an acquaintance who helped me. Then someone stopped on a scooter to see if everything was going well. I think that’s neat, because for the same money I was robbed.”

#10: You play soccer too, what’s that like for someone who was born without arms?

“I like that very much. I’ve always played football, but when I was eighteen I had surgery on my back and I couldn’t play football for two years. Then the club asked if I would like to train a team. I thought this would be fun and that way you stay connected to the club a bit. You work with kids and you see them get better, so that was nice to see. I had a special bond with the team and promised that when they were older I would play football with them. In the beginning that was exciting, because you have always been a trainer and now you are suddenly a fellow player. In the dressing room I also found it exciting, because when you are around eighteen or nineteen helping another man naked is often a taboo. Fortunately, this came very naturally.”

#11: Friends call you the Casanova, how did you get that nickname?

“I always have my word ready. I like to talk to girls and if you don’t have arms that’s usually a good icebreaker. Nine times out of ten a girl also comes to me because I have something special. So I don’t really have to put in much effort, haha.”

#12: You also travel quite a lot, where have you all been?

“Pooh, I took a tour of America with my cousin. I have been traveling to Iceland with a mate for the past year and also went to New Zealand once. In secondary school I followed an exchange project in Denmark. And this year I’m going to New Zealand again. I always tell myself that I don’t want to limit myself by my limitation. So I mostly enjoy life.”

#13: Do you have a life motto?

“Yes, my mother always says, ‘Society doesn’t adapt to you, but you have to adapt to society.’ And that’s how I live my life. You have to live as normal a life as possible and do things you enjoy.”

More info

Are you curious about how Emiel does things in practice on a daily basis? Then watch the episode of ‘You will have it’ here.

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