A blog about universal and accessible design

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Best Arms? Prosthetic limb improvements - or not

In the image above, veterans from a post-World War I workshop at Walter Reade Army Medical Center demonstrate new attachments for their prosthetic limbs - such as a welding tool. Though these tools did not catch on as much in the US as in Germany (according to research by Heather Perry published in this book), the idea of a worker restored to function through such a tool was of interest to American medical and military authorities too. Image via the amazing National Museum of Medicine flickr set.

In another image, below, from the Science Service photograph collection at the National Museum of American History, a veteran of World War II demonstrates his new prosthetic arm to a group of ladies visiting a Washington exhibition in 1948. The exhibition showcased the results of a multi-million dollar (a lot back then!) project to improve the design of artificial limbs, including (in the foreground) using new plastics and hydraulic joints. (note: portions of the Science Service collection are online, but not those related to disability/medicine).

I thought of these images after reading this story on the Guardian on British TV Presenter Cerrie Burnell. Burnell, who was born without the lower part of her right arm, chooses not to wear a prosthetic limb. Since childhood, she resisted wearing "this heavy, uncomfortable, ugly, pointless . . . thing," finding a prosthesis more cumbersome than useful.

Burnell is not alone. Despite the improvements made after WWII, in a 1950 study rehabilitation doctors reported that as few as 12% of single-arm amputees wore prosthetic limbs - and of those, only half wore them for daily work and hobbies! The rest simply found it easier to operate using one hand. Limbs have improved (though not as much as you might think!) but I have heard anecdotally that the number is still only about 50%. Sometimes there really is no design solution for everyone - no product/technology at all might be the best.

The point that Burnell raises - that people would rather see an obvious prosthetic limb than the stump of her arm - brings up interesting issues about the kinds of disability prejudice or discomfort that exist our modern visual/technological society. Is it that people are more comfortable with plastic and metal - even though they clearly indicate a lost limb - than the actual flesh of an impaired body? Or that they want to see that the person is at least trying to repair/replace their disability - to make themselves more "normal"? Does the strangeness of a prosthetic limb somehow trump the taboos around physical difference or disability?

Given its frequent appearance in both sci-fi and cultural studies, there is clearly some fascination in our modern society with this technology that can extend or replace human function - or even, as in the case of recent carbon-fiber sprinting legs (note: legs, not arms), surpass it. After wars, the press scurries to investigate the state of prosthetic limbs, and the government funds massive new projects to improve them. As the images above show, the ideas of what constitutes an "improved" arm change over time - sometimes focusing on utility for particular jobs, sometimes pushing to include whiz-bang new technologies and materials. Despite all of this attention, however, sometimes the fascination about prosthetic limbs has little to do with the material reality that an individual person with an amputation or missing limb has to use this object, and they may just choose to go without.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

3 quick links to 3 smart things

1. Steven Kuusisto on the "post-physical" fantasy of many technophiles -
We are, it seems, living in the age of the promissory “improved” body—yet that body is still stuck between the territories of production (politics), reproduction (material expense) and imagination (compulsory normativity).
Kuusisto writes that this ideal of a mechanized world that alleviates or "eliminates" disability is not a neutral product of technological innovation - it is the result of particular processes of imagination, wrapped in political concerns (i.e. who plans, who pays, who decides who and what gets to be post-physical?). In other words,
[the post-physical ideal] evokes Bill Clinton’s remark: “If you see a turtle on a fence post you can bet he didn’t get there by accident.”
2. Wheelchair Dancer on emergency plans - personal and administrative - for people with disabilities.
Katrina seems to have been a turning point in disaster planning for people with disabilities... Since then, I have seen numerous conference announcements, notices for research reports and lists of paper abstracts talking about disaster planning for people with disabilities. (An unfortunate side effect of all this good work is the now popular phrase "vulnerable populations.")
(note: this is an issue that also came to mind for me at the time of the inauguration, when officials suggested people with disabilities stay at home)

3. An interview with Pattie Moore, an industrial design consultant whose 1979 experiment of disguising herself as an elderly woman brought light to accessible design issues (via Core77).
In the 70s, we were told we design for a Caucasian, 40 years old, living on Long Island, with 2.3 kids. We didn’t even really design for women. And if you brought up the idea of designing for people with arthritis, for example, they would say, “We don’t design for those people!”
Also related: giant NY Times magazine article about the aging "market."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


I was just (re)reading Bernard Herman's material culture essay "The Bricoleur Revisited," from Ritchie Garrison and Ann Smart Martin's American Material Culture: The Shape of the Field (1997) - the bricoleur, Herman writes, is a "putterer with a message" - basically us, scholars and lovers of stuff, picking through the detritus of history for little messages and meanings.

I thought of that figure of the bricoleur in this world of not just objects, but bodies. Disability studies helps us think of not all bodies as the same, and I kind of waffle about whether I consider that to be a material culture statement or not. (bodies are not objects, but they are part of the material world. I am not crazy about a lot of scholarship on "the body" however, because it tends to be singular).

Something I read today made me think of it again.. Steven Kuusisto (fantastic poet, blogger, joker, and activist, who is blind) writes about becoming an honorary member of the "Wretches and Jabbers," a group of non-speaking writers (apparently there is a new documentary out about the group), and visiting them for a meeting. He describes sitting among them, everyone typing out words on talking computers, jumping and lurching as they needed to or wanted to:

Suddenly I was in "a happening"--a cognitive, inter-active jam session with four men and one woman, each with an electronic keyboard. Stories emerged about loneliness and about being misunderstood. (People with Autism can tell you things about childhood that will curl your hair.) But there were also many joys for this was a kind of autistic rock and roll session. (from Planet of the Blind)
The bricoleur looks into a box of things - stones, shells, an earring, a shard of a ceramic pot - and constructs stories. I liked thinking of how that applies to modern life, our funny tools and sounds and the stories and connections they help us make. I don't want to say bodies are objects but they are part of the picture.