Amputation can have a destructive effect on a person's sense of self. Although prosthetic limbs can help to some extent, options are often limited for many people.
For those who have options, it boils down to opting for either an artificial limb that looks realistic, which helps prosthetic users hide or mask the limb loss, or an uncovered leg that is more noticeable and often incorporates higher functioning components, like carbon feet.
Bridging the gap between appearance and function are "expressive prostheses." Prosthetic limbs that fall under this category allow users to express themselves, highlighting the user's identity and even sense of style.
With this design concept, prosthetic limbs are transformed into accessories—like stylish eyeglasses—that allow prosthetic users to make a statement. And by designing prosthetic limbs to look like accessories, users and those around them can decide what is normal and help reduce or even eliminate stigmatization.
Personalized prosthetic covers
Research done by Jeroen Blom and Tara French of The Glasgow School of Art explored the effects of taking a "co-design" approach between prosthetic users and manufacturers in developing personalized prosthetic covers. The research found that amputees' involvement in the design process gave amputees a positive experience.
The researchers found benefits from this experience that extended beyond having an expression of one's identity—it also supported the prosthetic user's confidence and has a "potential to create a positive image of disability."
Another study looked into preferences toward prosthetic limbs with a realistic or robotic appearance. The researchers found that non-disabled participants considered artificial limbs with a high level of human-likeness to be more attractive than prostheses with a mechanical appearance.
However, the study found that the reverse was true for the prosthetic users, who preferred prosthetic limbs with mechanical designs, primarily because it offers greater functionality.
Because of these findings, we believe that there is a place for expressive prosthetic limbs.
The role of culture
Researchers have argued that expressive prosthetic limbs have the potential to modify society's attitudes toward prosthetic users. This is deemed necessary because culture plays a huge role in people's attitudes toward disability.
In individualistic societies like the US and the UK—where people put a premium on individual goals and personal identity—attitudes toward people with disabilities are less stigmatized than in collectivist societies like Greece and China, where there is a higher emphasis on group harmony.
In a 2019 study that explored users' attitudes towards prosthetic limb aesthetics in Greece and the UK, the researchers found that all the study participants found expressive prosthetic limbs to be more attractive than traditional ones. The study also found that expressive prosthetic limbs helped improve the users' confidence.
The study's amputee subjects also pointed out that using expressive prostheses can serve as conversation starters with non-users, providing an opportunity to discuss limb loss's realities with other people. Such conversations help educate non-users and eventually improve societies' perception of prosthetic users and amputees in general.
The study also confirmed the role of culture in the formation of people's attitudes. For example, two participants from Greece suggested that wearing expressive prosthetic limbs may increase stigmatization as users are perceived to be drawing attention to themselves.
Although we can't do much to shift others' cultural norms, the existing data tells us that there is a need to consider culture when designing prosthetic limbs and other assistive devices, such as wheelchairs and hearing aids. This approach ensures that there won't be aggressive stigmatization in a particular culture. In fact, taking design into account may even help reverse the existing stigmas surrounding assistive devices.
A culture-sensitive approach to design provides evidence of the benefits of expressive prosthetic limbs on the users' self-confidence and how they are treated in society. Jumping off from the findings of the studies mentioned above, we think everyone will benefit from placing more value on great design in the manufacture of prosthetic limbs.