Loss of limb is associated with several changes in one’s personal life, including changes in well being, quality of life, and autonomy. Persons with loss of limb are often stigmatized as ‘disabled and subject to prejudice; it is as though people see the missing limb before they see the person with loss of limb. To many, persons with loss of limb are a reminder that they themselves could lose their limbs, and that their own personal safety could be at risk (Murray 2009). Therefore, the missing limb becomes central to any encounter they have with an individual with loss of limb and they have trouble looking past it.
It marks persons with loss of limb as clearly different; they are missing something, and this lack can make them seem physically incomplete. However, it would be a mistake to assume that they are in fact incomplete in all remaining aspects of life. These individuals have the opportunity to choose how to respond to their loss of limb and, as a result, how they will be viewed by society. Some may find that realistic prostheses suit them best. Others may want to show off their individuality, to embrace the fact that they are different, by wearing brightly coloured prostheses.
Furthermore, some may choose not to wear prostheses at all as an expression of their identity. Prostheses can help to enable persons with loss of limb to form their own identities, which may involve non-use, use of colourful prostheses to stand out, or use of realistic prostheses to blend in. It is important to understand that prostheses are not the only avenue for identity expression, and that a person with loss of limb who chooses not to use a prosthesis does not have an inferior identity to one who chooses to embrace a prosthesis.
Similarly, one who chooses a realistic prosthetic limb may not necessarily be ashamed of their limb loss, and one who chooses an obvious prosthetic limb may not necessarily proud of their limb loss. Identity expression is complex and can take many shapes and forms, but this paper will specifically address the ways in which the use of prosthetic limbs serves as an approach to identity expression that is unique to persons with loss of limb. Several issues arise with regard to the relationship between prostheses and identity.
The question that will guide this paper is “What are some of the issues of identity creation that manifest through interactions with prosthetic technology, and to what extent do these issues affect our current understandings of the identities of individuals with loss of limb? ” This paper endeavours to explore the issues that arise from identity creation by persons with loss of limb, explore different perspectives, question stigmatization, and unpack the idea of the ‘importance’ of being like everybody else. I will begin by briefly surveying the relevant existing research and noting areas that demand further consideration.
Next, I will borrow sponses from prosthetic users from various case studies and conduct my own analysis to reveal how prosthetic users feel about their prostheses and identities in terms of employment, gender, and social and cultural aspects. Following this analysis, I will discuss what it means to embody prostheses and the implications of the prosthesis as a tool as opposed to a replacement. Finally I will examine media portrayals of prosthesis users in advertisements. Existing research on prosthesis use and identity is lacking in several noteworthy areas.
The current literature is largely focused on quantitative data describing the factors involved in determining the use and non-use of prosthetic limbs. Until recently, there has not been much emphasis on the issues implicated in the use and non-use of prosthetic limbs in a qualitative fashion (Murray 2009). The majority of studies on adjustment to limb loss after amputation explore two main changing processes of patient’s identity: transformations in the individual’s body image, and the embodiment process of the prosthesis.
Although these processes are important milestones in the adjustment process, imb loss may include other self-identity implications beyond the body image and prosthesis embodiment (Senra et al. 2011). Many studies also focus on physical adjustment after amputation as well as some of the factors that hinder the adjustment and rehabilitation process, such as satisfaction with the prosthetic limb, but provide little to no results on psychological, social and demographic factors (Desmond and MacLachlan 2002). Surprisingly, there is an impressive amount of research on the steps that healthcare professionals can take to rehabilitation for amputees, such as being more aware of how they feel about their loss.
However, despite the success of research in this area, little is still understood about the experience of having limb loss, as each individual’s experience is slightly different and thus it would be a mistake to generalize experiences across different backgrounds. In addition, an individual’s body image is both highly subjective and dynamic, so results obtained for an individual at a particular time may no longer be relevant for that individual after a certain amount of time has passed.
Therefore, it is particularly difficult to locate trends that could help healthcare professionals respond better to issues that hinder rehabilitation. Despite these difficulties, researchers continue to advocate for an “insider perspective” approach to gain an understanding of the thoughts and feelings about prosthesis by firsthand accounts from prosthesis users (Saradjian, Thompson, and Datta 2009). Finally, the topic of gender in relation to prosthesis use has been largely overlooked in the research literature (Murray 2009).
Overall, research in the field of prosthetic technology and identity is lacking in qualitative research regarding use and non-use of prosthetic limbs; psychological, social, and demographic impacts on prosthetic limb use; and gendered responses to prosthetic limbs. Therefore, it is necessary to explore these areas further to gain a better understanding of the individual user’s experiences with prostheses and how they choose to use (or refrain from using) prostheses to construct their identities.