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Illustration of a woman with a prosthetic leg.

Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Prosthetic limbs affect our attitudes to disability – expressive design might change things for the better

Amputation can have a devastating effect on a person’s body image and sense of self. The use of prosthetic limbs may help, but when it comes to their appearance, options are often limited.

The choice, if there is one, usually comes down to either a prosthesis with a realistic appearance that helps users hide the limb loss, or a mechanical version which offers greater functionality, but is more easily noticeable.

To address this gap between function and appearance, some companies and designers are now working on “expressive prostheses”. These are prosthetic limbs where the design focuses on the appearance, with the aim of highlighting the user’s identity.

The idea is that by transforming prostheses into accessories, expressive versions can help users make positive statements about themselves. They may also be able to question notions of normalcy about the human body, and help eliminate stigmatisation.

recent research project explored the effects of a “co-design” approach between prosthetic makers and users in developing personalised covers. The project reported that amputees found involvement in the design process a positive experience, and the benefits extended beyond an “expression of identity, supporting confidence and a potential to create a positive image of disability”.

Another study looked into preferences towards prosthetic limbs with a realistic or non-realistic appearance. It found that prostheses with a high level of human likeness were considered by non-users to be more attractive than those with a more mechanical appearance.

But the reverse was true for the prosthetic users themselves, who preferred prostheses with robotic designs, perhaps because of their greater functionality.

This is where expressive prostheses can come in...

Anna Vlachaki, a PhD Student in the School of Design and Creative Arts, discusses expressive prostheses and her study that explored the effects of the appearance of prostheses in different cultures in the Conversation.

Read the full article here

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 20/126

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