Q&A: Gary Harmon, Author of 'My Daddy Takes His Legs Off'

Harmon (pictured here with the illustrator, Kathryn Shilling Oaks), wrote the autobiographical kids' book My Daddy Takes His Legs Off, a story of a girl whose friends don't want her dad to pick her and her brother up from after-school care anymore.

Is this book just for children whose parents have prosthetic limbs?

I never thought of my target audience as children with parents with disabilities. It is my sincere hope that a person with a disability would have children who love and accept that person without the need of this book. This is for children of parents who want to prepare their child to be accepting and understanding if they should encounter a person in a public setting who looks different. It would also be useful in doctors' offices, school classes, and children's classes in places of worship to help children understand we may be very different on the outside, but we are all people.

When did you decide to write the book?

The story was based on an actual event, and I wrote a rough draft of it shortly after it occurred, six years ago. The rough draft didn't work, and I kept tinkering with it, but it never worked. Last spring, I was preparing to speak to a group about disabilities, and I decided I wanted to take another shot at the book. I finally understood that I wasn't the protagonist of this story—my daughter was. When I got that, the book nearly wrote itself.

Are kids curious about your appearance?

They do seem very curious. I tend to divide them into two groups: there are the kids who ask questions; and, there are those who stand, stare at me and ask nothing. I have a rule; I never, outside of a classroom, answer a question I haven't been asked. I will answer any reasonable, respectful question asked.

Do adults try to squelch that?

Parents within the last few years have been more tolerant of their children asking questions. Years ago, I actually saw parents spank their child for questioning me. I cannot speak for other people with disabilities, but I find it hopeful when children ask them. When I was in elementary school, there was an entire mythology invented to explain me because a teacher told her kids not to talk with me. Talk. I'll answer best I can. And if an adult or child is rude, the teacher in me comes out for a visit.

Is it okay to ask what happened to your legs?

It is not inappropriate to ask. I am a result of amniotic band syndrome. During my mom's pregnancy, the interior lining of the amniotic sac created tears into which my arms and legs grew. Because of that, I have a left hand with a thumb and pinkie, no right hand, and complete legs but no feet. I've had my legs surgically broken twice and an operation on my hand, but otherwise, my condition has been perfectly normal to me.

Do you do a lot of the day to day parenting chores?

I do household chores, admittedly, not often enough. I am no good at picking things up off the floor. I try not to put things on the floor for that reason. My family, on the other hand, leaves everything on the floor. I am pretty good at cleaning bathrooms, and I am gifted at clearing flat surfaces. I have two kids and do many things for and with them.

Are any parts of the book funny?

I'm not sure my book is very funny. It has some humor. It has a great picture of my son's face covered in chocolate. There are "light' moments in the book, but it isn't a comedy. I do think humor helps a lot with acceptance. When I speak to audiences, I try to put them at ease with humor.

Do you feel like all parents embarrass their kids to some degree?

Let's be clear on this point. My children are not embarrassed by my physical difference. I have a close, loving family. My children have only known me this way. They can't imagine a father who doesn't take his legs off at night. But every parent does have not only a right but a responsibility to embarrass his or her child. I do it as often as possible and love it.

Has anyone asked you funny questions about your legs?

I have been asked if I can eat. I would think my tummy would answer that. I've been asked if I potty. I just laugh at that. I was informed by airport security in another state that they were going to detach my feet from my prostheses. I assured them they would not, and dialed the ACLU on my cellphone.

What is most important in helping kids accept adults who look different?

I stress to kids that it's okay if you don't understand why I'm this way. No one really does. I want them to know that, in spite of my differences, I'm truly, completely human. We all are, no matter what our color, race, creed, nationality, or difference.

Are you a writer by trade usually?

I am a teacher for the Knox County School System currently assigned to the Richard L. Bean Juvenile Servicing Center. I am currently working on an autobiography centered around issues with the disabilities. For the record, the students I teach are very accepting of me as a teacher. That has been true of all of my teaching assignments.

What do your kids think about the book? Your wife?

My family heard the book together when I finished it. I read it to them, and they stood, applauded, and hugged me. My daughter loves being the main character. My son and wife play important roles. They're proud of that. My wife helps with sales and bookkeeping. Sometimes we go together on the speaking engagements. I hope more groups and companies contact me, order a book, or set up a speaking engagement so I can continue to get the message out.

My Daddy Takes His Legs Off is available at harmonspeaks.com or amazon.com.