Watching Jonnie Peacock foxtrot, quickstep and paso-doble his way across the Strictly ballroom, you wouldn’t guess that the lower part of his right leg is a prosthesis.
So, as the first amputee ever to appear on the BBC series steps out onto the dance floor and back into the media spotlight, it’s time to look again at prosthetics and whether we’re really succeeding in putting amputees on an equal level.
We’ve come a long way since the Greeks and Romans developed the first prostheses, which were bulky, non-functional and used solely for the purpose of hiding the lost limb, considered at the time to be an embarrassing deformity. Today they look more lifelike, imitate natural movement and have vast functionality, meaning that one of the most traditionally visible disabilities is becoming increasingly invisible.
The resulting benefits in helping individuals lead normal lives and avoid feelings of isolation, are immeasurable. Prosthetics have a particularly profound impact on young people, those that have suffered amputation as a result of time served in conflict, or a harrowing injury.
Our reluctance to confront this type of disability is being replaced with awe at the capabilities of amputees such as Jonnie Peacock, inspiring the public to reconsider their preconceptions of disability, and once again making visible the achievements of both the individuals and of the engineering and science that has fuelled these advancements. It would be a natural step, therefore, to celebrate prosthetics as an example of how we’ve tackled a disability with ingenuity.
However, in light of achievements in sport, dance, and this everyday ‘invisibility’, it is all too easy to forget the hindrances of a prosthesis. Jonnie has opened our eyes to some of these challenges along his Strictly journey, such as only being able to pivot in one direction, noting that his lack of an ankle joint has hindered his posture, as he is forced to stick out his bottom in order to balance, much to the judges dissatisfaction. The realities of prosthetics it seems, which also include pain, stump swelling and phantom limb sensation, are easily glossed over.
In addition, when you see sporting stars’ carbon fibre blades, it’s easy to forget that the basic version (think NHS glasses frames versus designer frames) is standardised and, whilst mass production of prostheses has enabled as many amputees as possible to be given this life changing treatment, it is nevertheless flawed.
Wide-scale production is simply too impersonal for what has to be such a unique solution. Practically, these relatively-uniform prostheses don’t meet the individual’s needs and artificial limbs often don’t attempt to recreate the shape of the former limb, leaving patients still feeling as though they are missing something.
Industrial designers such as Scott Summit have addressed this problem, arguing that parts of our body represent not only our physicality but our personality. Rather than making these limbs look human, he strives for an unapologetically man made but ‘cool’ result, turning prosthetics from something mechanical, into an object of design or art.
The philosophy of Summit rejects any half-hearted homogenisation efforts aforementioned, and in doing so, raises the question of where our fixation on fitting in, replicating the ‘whole’ or ‘normal’ come from.
Of course, it is up to the individual if they want to fit in or stand out, but the prosthetic industry should be ready to respond to either.
The capricious desire to make invisible, and then visible, the truths surrounding prosthetics and amputee equality, is somewhat reflective of the wider conundrum of attitudes to disability.
We must make normal the incredible, whilst accepting all our differences, to establish an environment of equality that nevertheless celebrates the diverse.
image: Markos Ioannou