Pirate arms vs. Robot arms

One of the most common questions I am asked regarding my prosthetic arm is some variation of the following: “Why don’t you have one of those cool robot hands I saw on TV?”

My standard answer is to talk about how prosthetics are expensive and often not covered by insurance.  This explanation usually makes sense to people, but I can’t help but feel that I’m letting them down.  After all, the basic design for my prosthesis was developed in 1812.  The materials have changed for the better; they are lighter and cheaper. But I still look like I belong on a pirate ship with my body-powered, hook-shaped prosthesis.

amazingbioI bring this up now because we are in the middle of Disability History Month (at least we would be if we were in the UK), and it seemed like a good time to link to this article from How Stuff Works: How Prosthetic Limbs Work. It is a fantastic article that covers a lot of the points I usually make, like how expensive this stuff is, how they haven’t changed that much, and how they don’t last a lifetime.  People don’t usually think about these things.  They just think about the cool documentary they watched about the cutting edge stuff.  A kid might think of a book they read like Amazing Feats of Biological Engineering, which makes it seem like bionics are more here and now than they are.*  Or they think: We live in the twenty-first century; Robot arms should be a reality by now.

It does seem like we’re getting closer to that reality.  3-d printing offers some really interesting options for prosthetics, and organizations like E-Nable are trying to connect people who could benefit from the technology to the people who know how to use it.  I am excited to see where this will lead.  Perhaps sometime soon my old pirate arm will be a thing of the past.

Until then, it would be cool to see a documentary or read a book about the prosthetic devices that people are actually using right now.  Even if they do seem like they are from another era.


More questions about my prosthetic arm answered here.


* Nothing against the book.  It’s actually pretty cool to see prosthetics addressed at all, and if it encourages kids to think about this kind of technology, I’m all for it.

Disabled or Not Disabled?

I recently came across a sports biography book for kids featuring athletes with disabilities, like Jim Abbott, Curtis Pride, and others.  Only….. one of the athletes profiled was missing a finger.  Really?  I barely consider myself disabled when I am missing my entire forearm, and this guy gets the label with a slightly different from usual hand?

But the book explained that his difference affected his ability to play baseball–for the better, actually, since it gave him a pretty wicked curve ball.  Fine.  I guess I’ll allow it.

Of course, that’s a pretty straight-forward situation compared to the recent question of whether Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who uses prosthetic devices to run, could compete in the Olympic Games among fully abled athletes.  He raised new questions among the Olympic Committee about the nature of the games and of athletics.  Are prosthetic legs the same as real legs or are they something else altogether?  I’m not sure that I can answer that question for myself, much less for anyone else.

This article on the NY Times web site looked at the science behind whether Pistrorius’ prosthetics help or hinder back in 2007, and he ultimately did compete in the 2012 games.  He will also be competing in the Paralympic Games, which started this week.

I remember a presentation I gave in one of my library school classes years ago on assistive technology.  One of my classmates asked a smartass question: “Isn’t any kind of technology assistive technology?” I would be the first to say yes to this because I’m the sort of person who thinks of my prosthetic arm and my glasses and a step stool as all in the same category, but the question feels so semantic that it doesn’t seem worth the time to consider.  Or so I thought.

Professor Andy Miah has actually given plenty of thought to the question.  He studies ethics and emerging technology, and in this BBC report about the technology of the Paralympics he said,

“In the future, we will think of everybody as already disabled, and it won’t be a question of whether people who have disabilities are better or worse.  It’s about trying to ensure that everyone with their particular limitations are able to use technology in a way that optimizes performance.”

My prosthetic arm

It sounds like something out of a science fiction novel.  Actually I can’t help but think of the Vonnegut short story “Harrison Bergeron” in which the U.S. Handicapper General makes sure that everyone is equal by placing handicaps upon anyone with extraordinary talents.   Really, though, I say stuff like this all the time.  Every time a kid asks me about my fake arm, I explain that I’m just like them.  We all use different things to help us do what we want to do.

Our differences might affect how we throw a baseball, but we can still throw.  We might have to fight for our place in the game, especially if we have a cyborg pitching arm, but it’s a question worth exploring.

See Fake Arm 101 for more about my assistive technology.

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Finding focus in a connected world

“This book is about a yearning and a need. It’s about finding a quiet, spacious place where the mind can wander free.  We all know what that place feels like, and we used to know how to get there. But lately we’re having trouble finding it.”  – from Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers

I am new to the smartphone world, so I listened with interest when MPR aired William Powers’ presentation from the Aspen Ideas Festival.  He spoke of what our extreme connectedness does to our lives and our need for solitide.

His words resonated with me pretty strongly because I am a big believer in the power of solitude.  As a writer, I create alone, and I have learned to value the times when I have no one with whom to interact.  The times when I am waiting, for example, are perfect to simply observe.  With a smartphone in my purse or pocket, how often will I stand at a bus stop without pulling out my phone?

It seems I have added another layer of decision-making to my everyday life.

I will say, however, that just a couple of weeks in to my smartphone experience, I believe I am a better parent with it at least in one aspect.  I now spend my bus commute home from work catching up on emails and social media for the day, so when I get home I can focus on my daughter without distraction.

That is a good thing.

I love blogs, and I love loving blogs

I love blogs.  Perhaps that seems obvious since this is a blog.  I also love Facebook.  And Twitter.

I didn’t always love blogs.  When a group of my friends and acquaintances started keeping Livejournal blogs circa 1999-2000, I scoffed.  Why would they want to share their “journal” with anyone?  I didn’t get it.  It wasn’t long before I was swept up in it myself.  I’d always loved writing, and here was a chance for me to write, receive feedback, and engage with people I might not otherwise know.  Soon I was seeking out blogs and communities on Livejournal and beyond.  Most of my old friends have long since forgotten the blogging craze, but I’m still here.  Why?

Cognitive SurplusPart of the answer lies in Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus.  He writes of creativity, sharing, and connectivity in an age of technology.  The Internet/social media has brought amazing opportunity that, coupled with the surplus of time and energy that many of us have, has resulted in projects like Wikipedia, PickupPal, and many others.  We are no longer consumers.  We are producers, collaborators, citizens.

I love this.  I loved Cognitive Surplus.  Perhaps that seems obvious since I’m a blogger, zinester, and lover of indie music.  I love the “publish” button.  I love the “like” button.  I love the opportunity to be a part of something greater than myself.  Shirky writes,

The range of opportunities we can create for one another is so large, and so different from what life, until recently, was like, that no one person or group and no one set of rules or guides can describe all the possible cases.  The single greatest predictor of how much value we get out of our congitive surplus is how much we allow and encourage one another to experiment, because the only group that can try everything is everybody.

Life is good, people.  Let’s do something.