This week’s lecture was delivered by Kaitlyn Debiasse, a design lecturer at GSA whose experience includes managing a project that creates prosthetic limbs for Syrian refugees.
After the lecture, I spoke with my girlfriend Maryam, an upper limb congenital amputee who has experience with various prosthesis, but now chooses to live without one. I asked about her experience with prostheses and her thoughts on the ideas shared by Kaitlyn Debiasse.
Maryam has experience with 3D printed limbs through helping at her university’s prosthetics department and has found their capabilities to be very limited. Human hands must be able to exert large and complex forces to complete everyday tasks, such as opening a door or using a ruler. Even the most advanced readily available prostheses struggle to complete these tasks, and that’s with a much higher force output than a plastic limb could manage. In fact, many tasks are harder to complete with a prosthesis than without, due to reduced control and no feedback. Further, electronic prostheses are very heavy due to the powerful motors, so comfort can be a limiting factor. This is what caused Maryam to stop using a prosthesis: the added functionality did not justify the added discomfort. While 3D printed prostheses solve the weight problem, they don’t yet offer enough functionality to be worth using instead of your residual limb. Perhaps metal 3D printing will prove to be an important technology in this area in the future.
I agreed much more with Kaitlyn’s messages on equality in design. The figures on gendered car safety are shocking, and this issue seems to pervade into the world of prosthetics as well. Maryam’s electronic prosthetic hand was the smallest size on offer yet is still slightly larger than her other hand. It’s not as if she has an especially small hand size either; she’s 55th percentile. What’s worse, in order to achieve this size, the prosthesis forgoes the wrist movement found on larger models. I understand this is a limitation of practicality – the increased weight becomes unreasonable for a smaller person – but I think there should at least be an option. It’s already a highly customisable product so why not?