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.


Penny L. Richards said...

There's a section in John Hockenberry's _Moving Violations_ where he talks about his grandfather, who lost his forearm in a 1920s work accident (to the best of my memory). Hockenberry's grandmother said later, "We wanted him to wear something, because of the way people think and talk, you know. People are cruel. They can say things that can hurt you clean through." (p. 63 in the edition I have) Social pressure, not utility, was the reason for a prosthetic in that case too.

Bess said...

great quote, Penny. thanks!

Naomi J. said...

This post has been included in this month's Disability Blog Carnival - see http://lilwatchergirl.blogspot.com/2011/02/participate.html. Thanks for a really interesting contribution!