Talli Osborne was born missing her arms and the majority of bones in her legs, but she doesn’t like the term disabled. “It implies that I’m not able to do things. The truth is that I’m able to do lots of things. I may have to do them differently but I can do almost everything anybody else can. I have special needs, but everybody has special needs. It’s just that mine are more visible.” Standing at three feet tall—three and a half feet if she’s put up her bright pink mohawk—Osborne is a fixture of the Toronto punk scene. She’s been playing in bands and going to shows for over a decade and has appeared on stage with Lagwagon, NOFX, and Against Me!
Today Osborne is confident and gregarious person, but this wasn’t always her story. Growing up Osborne felt like a misfit. She was alienated from her peers and desperately wanted to fit in. It’s a similar narrative to a lot of creative people, but for Osborne those feelings weren’t just internal. Until she was nineteen Osborne wore prosthetic limbs. The limbs were an aesthetic choice. While Osborne was capable of walking and getting around without them, the limbs allowed her to pass as an able-bodied person. While passing was very important to Osborne, the limbs also caused complications.
“Most people who use prosthetics don’t have legs or they have a bit of legs and no feet. I have feet so for me it was almost like stilts. They were hard to get on and they were also really hot. I would sweat profusely. It was gross and uncomfortable. I had to balance and stepping on a little pebble or any little push might knock me over. When I was knocked over it was really hard to get up.” It wasn’t until she moved to Toronto for university that Osborne decided to give up her prosthetics. At university Osborne found a group of supportive friends with similar likes and interests.
“A lot of kids move to a big city and they find their people. I had friends growing up but it wasn’t the same. In residence I had my people. Some of us found each other because we had colored hair. Some of us found each other because we played loud music from out rooms. Growing up my parents had always told me to wear my prosthetics when I was out so I didn’t make people uncomfortable, but around my new friends I didn’t feel the need.”
As Osborne became more comfortable around her peers, the limbs stopped making her feel like she was passing and instead made her feel like she was hiding who she actually was. After a couple of weeks she gave them up entirely. It was also around this time when she started becoming more involved with Toronto’s punk community. “At its best punk has always been a place for people who didn’t fit in. For me it was a place where I felt accepted. When I stopped wearing the prosthetics and I started going to more shows…I don’t want to say that’s when I was born because that sounds religious. But it’s when I started being who I am today.”
For Osborne, concerts felt like home. The support that she found among the punks gave her confidence that extended to her personal and professional life. She became interested in fashion and began to develop her unique style. She perfected the skill of typing with her tongue. She also began talking to musicians. It was at a NOFX concert that Osborne struck up a conversation with her favorite singer, Fat Mike. It was a meeting that would change her life.
“I was determined to talk to Fat Mike and we chatted for just a bit at the Toronto show. A couple of months later my friend had gotten a hold of an advanced copy of their new album. He phoned me up and told me that he thought the band wrote a song about me and played me the song over the phone. At first I couldn’t believe it. We had only talked for a bit so I looked up their email on the website and Fat Mike wrote me back from his AOL account. I guess I had left an impression. It was the ultimate compliment.”
The song “She's Nubs” appears on the NOFX album The War on Errorism. The song gave Osborne celebrity status among NOFX fans and other Fat Wreck Chords bands; soon after Osborne started getting media requests and began talking about her experience with the band and as well as her experiences in general. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. The transition had come full circle: the same things that had made Osborne feel alienated as a kid were now the reasons she was being applauded.
After spending years working as a social media specialist with Virgin Mobile, where her talents were recognized by Virgin founder Richard Branson, Osborne now makes a living as a motivational speaker. Osborne’s speeches remind people not to prejudge a person’s abilities based on their physical appearance. It’s a message that may seem obvious, but it’s something that she fights against every day. “I’ve always felt I’ve had to prove myself because people see me and they assume the worst. I want to do things like cook, or get around, and dress myself to have a normal life, but I also want to do them as a fuck you to people who think I can’t. It’s okay to ask for help, and I will ask for help when I need it, but I also want to show people that I can do things myself and I hope that’s positive message.”
Graham Isador is a writer living in Toronto - @Presgang