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Prosthetics as an Enablement Device: Not Yet?

This report is a response to Aimee Mullins' 2009 TED conference presentation. It is specifically concerned with her closing statements.

From her talk:

"The conversation with society has changed profoundly in this last decade. It is no-longer a conversation about overcoming deficiency. It's a conversation about augmentation. Its a conversation about potential. A prosthetic limb doesn't represent the need to replace loss any more. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space. "

"The people that society once considered to be dis-abled, can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment."

Full Talk Podcast available here


Aimee seems truly convinced that this is the case. It may well be the case for her, someone who can afford many, many sets of prosthetic limbs, and has mastered using their limited capabilities so well. However, it is certainly not the case for society at large. There are several key problems:

Refusal to Believe

This is by far the toughest of the three main problems with so-called disabilities still. It is a perceptual problem which rages across the world, despite heavy legislation in several countries to ban it: The perception that having a body that is less than fully organic, somehow makes you less than fully able.

It is not so much that people don't believe this can be overcome, it is more a problem that for a sizable minority of non-disabled, they won't believe it. Simply refuse to. Until a way to combat this is found, there will always be stigma attached to those whose natural bodies are less capable in one way, even if they are more capable in another.

Sadly, the solution is probably going to be that we will have to wait for these individuals to die off, in combination with the other points below, before this is ever rectified.


Cost is a big issue. Especially in those countries where health insurance is a for-profit business. Equally so in the very poorest countries where healthcare is not really a word they are familiar with. Right now, prosthetics with any degree of capability cost a figurative arm and a leg to make, test, and install. It takes a person with a very high financial means to be able to purchase several sets of the truly capable stuff.

Much of this cost will decline with time, with new manufacturing methods, and of course mass production. Right now, it can still cost over $85,000 US for a high end prosthetic leg. That is simply outside the range for a vast number of people who would stand to benefit from such.

Thus, they are forced onto lower end prosthetics with very simple functions, and which perpetuate the myth that disabled persons are in fact dis-abled. Because, the prosthetics the majority use, are very disabling. Most are little better than titanium tubes for limbs, and maybe a moulded shoe inset or a hook and claw for a hand. Very 19th century, but also cheap to produce, and thus inexpensive for the health service to fit.

Advanced prosthetics are frequently denied to those whom it would benefit most to have them, purely because of their cost relative to individual earnings capability before they are fitted.

There are several hopeful paths on the horizon of course, including prosthetic derivatives from the robotics markets. However, the key is that those are future developments, and so cannot be accounted for in current attitudes.


As of yet, we have not been able to create one single piece of prosthetics hardware which is fully as capable as the organic body part it is replacing. Not one. That is not to say that we never will, but simply that we have not the technology nor the technical proficiency to do so.

Whilst it is true that modem prosthetics can have all sorts of additional capabilities an organic body part never could, until they also are capable of everything that the natural version is capable of, how can anyone make the claim that they are better?

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