I don’t really think of myself as having a disability

By David Luo, math teacher

I’m Mr. Luo, one of the math teachers here at Peddie. I help build robots in the Izzo Design Laboratory and occasionally play Super Smash Bros. 

I also have a stump arm. I read on some chart once that this counts as an “orthopedic disability.” I don’t really think of myself as having a disability, though. Growing up, my mom would always tell me, “David, I hope you can live a normal life.” As a tiny kid, I didn’t really know what she meant. Most of my life already seemed very normal. The only thing that wasn’t normal was my prosthesis.

A prosthesis is an artificial body part. I had a prosthetic limb. It was a robot arm that would open and close at the fingers when I made the right motions with my muscles. But really slowly. And it was heavy. In fact, life was easier when I just took my prosthesis off. It was clunky and designed for people who had lost a limb. For me, the prosthetic arm did nothing. But it made me appear “normal” and maybe more acceptable to everyone around me, at my inconvenience.

When my parents used to drop me off at daycare, they and the other adults would encourage me to wear my “arm” whenever possible. I would try to take it off whenever possible. After lunch, I would “forget” my arm under the table. At playtime, I would hide the thing in a drawer. I would bury it under other toys. The exasperated adults would tell me, every time, “David, you forgot your arm!” And I would tell them, “No, I didn’t.”

I didn’t need that arm, anyway.

Not everything came easy, though. There were a few things in life that were pretty hard. For one, I am terrible at juggling. Tying my shoes still takes me a while, too. And in physics class, I found the left-hand rule for electric currents to be entirely useless.

One particularly big challenge for me was learning how to play the piano. See, because I had one hand, nobody expected anything out of me. My parents didn’t believe that I should bother with the piano, so they never signed me up for lessons. By the time my little sister started taking piano lessons, all my friends had already been learning for a while.

There were piano books in the house after that. When my sister was done fiddling around on our electric keyboard, I would take a shot at those beginner songs. I taught myself how to read sheet music and play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in a single afternoon. I had “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with the most basic chords down after a couple of days, with adjustments to move the left-hand notes into my right.

For me, learning piano was uniquely empowering because I was adjusting everything to fit me, rather than the other way around.

For me, learning piano was uniquely empowering because I was adjusting everything to fit me, rather than the other way around. Every piece of sheet music was a puzzle. See, by default, piano sheet music assumes that your left will cover the lower notes and your right will cover the higher notes. And like in this example, the right hand tends to cover easy, moving parts that you could play with two or three fingers (say, a ring finger and a pinky), while the left hand tends to play harmonic stuff. Chords. My stump can’t possibly play that many notes at one time, so I just move them up to my right, where I have plenty of fingers to spare. That way, I don’t miss any notes when playing a song.

By middle school, I was knocking out Chopin pieces. Anyone know his Nocturne in C# Minor? Real pretty. Super easy. Lots of room for interpretation and expression. It was a piece that I had adjusted for myself in seventh grade, and it was the piece that I took to the Frederic Chopin Piano Competition. That’s an annual piano competition for students to show off their chops. I walked up to the grand piano from stage right, with the right side of my body facing the audience and the judges. Nobody noticed that my left arm was a stump. When I started playing, the judges closed their eyes to really listen to my playing.

When I was done, I got off the bench, faced the judges directly, and bowed. The audience gave me a standing ovation, which was pretty cool, but the judges’ jaws just hung open. It was the greatest moment of my life. Yeah, I peaked in seventh grade.

Math teacher David Luo gaming

Math teacher David Luo loves gaming, despite the tough challenges related to his one-handedness. 

The toughest challenges related to my one-handedness actually come up when I’m doing what I love most: gaming. When I play, I can’t hit every button — controllers are designed for two hands, not one. Mouse and keyboard, even worse. As a result, I’m often unable to perform certain actions in games. I can’t aim down my sights in Call of Duty. I can’t raise my shield in Zelda. I can’t even throw items in Mario Kart. 

But that’s all fine because finding ways around these obstacles has become a part of the game. I beat Dark Souls without ever equipping a shield—I learned how to better position myself so that I would never need to block. I created custom keybinds for Team Fortress and Quake so that I could do everything that a two-handed player could. And in tackling games like Splatoon or Monster Hunter, I could avoid the L buttons no longer. So I snagged some hardware modifications to rearrange controller layouts. Now, I can reach the left-hand buttons with my ring finger, no problem.

And so, having one hand is not a disability for me. Instead, it is an opportunity to make things more interesting. Challenging, occasionally, but also all the more satisfying. I don’t think I’m living quite the “normal life” that my mother had hoped for, but I’m having a lot of fun. 

David Luo joined Peddie’s Mathematics Department in 2019. He received his degree in Engineering in Computer Science from Princeton University. Luo assists with Peddie’s FRC Robotics Team 5895. He resides on campus and serves as dorm supervisor of Austen Colgate dormitory.