Cyborg fears: the advance of prosthetics and those who covet them

New technology has given birth to "prosthetic envy", particularly in competitive sports, but in reality - dystopian visions aside - artificial limbs still have their limitations


‘But, Aimee, that’s not fair.” That’s what a friend said to athlete, actress, model and double-leg amputee Aimee Mullins when she arrived at a party wearing a pair of legs that added three inches to her natural height. She addresses this prosthetic envy in her TED Talk and maybe it’s not fair that Aimee can adjust her height, or even the texture or colour of her legs, whenever she likes but when you lose two limbs, surely you’re allowed some freedom when you replace them.

Whatever you replace them with.

As medical and technological advances continue to be made in the world of prosthetics, prosthetic envy is a phrase that is slowly creeping into conversations. While some non-disabled people are eyeing up these limbs as a coveted item, others are questioning whether or not they have an unfair advantage, especially in competitive sports.

As if from a dystopian novel, some are fetishising the idea of cyborgs, where we mix our own bodies with mechanical or technological parts, and others are fearing it. “It does feel completely mad but the very fact that people are having discussions about it, I think they’re thinking seriously about it,” says Stacey Gregg, the writer of Override, a play that sees a couple run away from their technology-obsessed reality so that they can raise their future child in a world without super-limbs.

While we’re not living in a world where robots are two for a penny, there are organisations called Campaign Against Sex Robots in existence, warning us that our own obsession with technology is real.

As an amputee myself, I’ve never encountered prosthetic envy because while my legs look damn fine, they’re just for show; they don’t perform tricks or play into the sci-fi fantasy of being part machine and part human. As this integrated cyborg and robot society is toyed with in movies like Blade Runner (1982) and Ex Machina (2015), and Channel 4’s Humans, it captures the imagination of those who think it’s either an obtainable reality or one to be very, very afraid of.

“I think that we’re living in a time where if money can be made, if something can be sold and commercialised, and made a commodity, then, you know, I don’t know where . . . ” Gregg trails off.

“When you think about cosmetic and corrective surgery as a kind of gateway drug if you like, it’s kind of extraordinary what kind of lengths – women in particular – already go to to conform to what they consider normative beauty. I don’t think anything is impossible.”

Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s The Alternative Limb Project creates bespoke limbs for amputees and about 50 people a year approach her for a unique design. With an average starting price of £3,700 (€4,350), she ends up making around six limbs a year, with clients taking home crystallised legs, robotic-looking arms that can fly and land drones or, in my case, a tattooed steampunk leg.

“Some of the prosthetics available today look so powerful, beautiful and otherworldly, you can’t blame people for feeling wowed by them,” she says. “However, once they understand the limitations that prosthetics still have over natural limbs, they realise that their first impression may be a little unrealistic.”

“That was the first time that that kind of question came up, when we had two athletes who were amputees running with blades, saying to each other that there was an unfair advantage. And it brought up the whole question of ‘did someone who was running with a blade have an advantage or a disadvantage over an able-bodied person?’’’ says one of Cappagh Hospital’s prosthetists Donna Fisher, who also worked as a technician for all the paralympic athletes at the London games and will be reprising that role again in Rio.

Fisher is, of course, talking about Oscar Pistorius who claimed that Brazilian para-athlete Alan Oliveira and gold winner of the 200m won because his blades were taller, giving him an extra spring in his sprint.

Even though Pistorius’s name is now spoken in hushed tones in the amputee community, as the first ever para-athlete to compete in the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games, his achievements started a brand new debate; can prosthetic limbs enhance a body?

“People say ‘doesn’t that make it much easier to run when you’ve got a blade?’ It’s absolutely not true,” says Fisher. “These people are missing limbs and you cannot replace that with anything that’s going to improve it, or get somebody in and advance you, you know?”

It’s a lack of understanding of disability and prosthetics that causes some people to view the blades as something to be desired. “From working with amputees for years, and working with people with disabilities for years, I see what compensations they have to make in order to function. And it’s not just the running down the track part, it’s all the other stuff around it,” she says.

“If you were to ask someone else who doesn’t look after patients like I do, then they wouldn’t have the concept of that. I think that’s why we start to have these arguments of unfair advantage and things like that, where people don’t realise what’s actually involved outside of the sport as well.”

Channel 4’s online series Limb Pimpin’ shone a light on the different ways that amputees embrace their limbs and model, personal trainer and self-described adrenaline junkie Jack Eyers flaunted his wears by wakeboarding in a suit because . . . why not? He can relate to sporting prosthetic envy but he very plainly explains that his legs, no matter how advanced they are, do not give him extra power.

“So when I do squats in the gym, people always say ‘Oh, yeah. That’s unfair, you’re doing it with one leg’. And I always say to them, ‘Well, I’m doing it with ONE leg’. Unfair. Jesus,” he laughs it off. “It’s just a mechanical knee, a free hinge. It falls underneath me if I don’t stand on it correctly.”

When it comes to his legs, this Englishman is the James Bond of amputees, with one for every occasion. “I own . . . how many have I got? I’ve got my water leg that I wakeboard in, I’ve got my sports leg which is just like a rufty-tufty, smash it up but it won’t break. I’ve then got an electric leg which is, like, just for walking – you don’t really run in it – and I’ve got another spare mechanical leg,” he says, before adding in his most important leg. “Then I’ve got a wooden pirate’s leg.”

Since Gregg started writing Override in 2011, she has taken note of the advances in medical and cosmetic body augmentation over the years, and she hypothesises that if people have the means or the money to experiment with their bodies, elective amputations could become as regular as cosmetic surgery. “It’s on the gradient. ‘Do you want one little bone moved or will we take a whole limb off and give you something beautiful?’”

“It does seem far out but the more time I spent with this play, when I take bionics into account, alongside other enhancements and augmentations, and as we see the increase in medicalisation and technologisation of human bodies, I think that limbs and bionics will only feel like a part of that.”

The lines between an elective surgery and one for medical purposes can overlap. My own surgery in 2004 was by choice. I was born with one leg shorter than the other and while the amputation wasn’t medically urgent, my surgeon and Fisher, who was my orthotist since I was a child and prosthetist since I was 16, knew that the benefits of having two legs on the ground – even just for aesthetic purposes – would be much better for me in the long-run. Eyers made a similar choice when he was a teenager. He was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a condition that affected the length and strength of his leg, so he knew that an amputation would give him a better quality of life.

With a prolific social media presence, especially on Instagram, Eyers regularly gets messages from people expressing an interest in becoming an amputee. “I don’t really know how to reply when people talk about how they really want to become an amputee,” he says. “I’m not a negative person but, you know, when an able-bodied person tells me that they want to get their leg amputated, I try to tell them all of the negative things about it and it just kind of... turns them on a bit, which is a bit weird.”

In cases like my own and Eyers, choosing to amputate a limb when there’s an underlining medical condition makes sense but psychologically, it’s not an easy path to go down no matter what your reasoning is. This is what Fisher has to emphasise when she meets with patients who think that a prosthesis will immediately turn them into an athlete.

Since the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, the conversation around disability and amputees has become more positive, heralding para-athletes as superhuman. However, running blades, and the supposed advantages that they bring, were a hot topic in London and they’re set to be a big talking point again this year in Rio when the Paralympic Games kick off on September 7th.

“If you didn’t climb or want to climb Everest when you had all your limbs, the chances of you doing it once you’ve had whatever amputation is probably slim. And that’s the way I look at it and the people who are going down that road of ‘I want to be a better runner’, I just think personally think that it’s a crazy idea but it is out there and there are people who will do anything to be the best,” she stresses. “There’s a lot more to it than just being able run fast, jump high or whatever.”

Those suffering from the green-eyed monster can get sidetracked by the glitzy or hi-tech limbs but just because you’re an amputee, it doesn’t mean you have to become RoboCop.

In a thick Scouser accent, comedian and star of Limb Pimpin’ Jackie Hagan explains how she turned her “mingin’” NHS leg into an an extension of her own personality, rather than going for a polished machine.

“When you go to the place where you get your false legs and everything, you’re sat round in there for ages, and it’s gender segregated as well, so you’re sat there with loads of women, usually older women, and everything that they say is about hiding it. It’s all about high heels and hiding it,”she explains. “I don’t want to spend my life wearing long trousers and also, it’s like this mascot for my personality because that’s always the way I dealt with stuff because I’ve had shit all me life.

“So it was like ‘roll the sh*t in glitter’, put it on stage, put it in the spotlight and put a top hat on it, you know?”

When it come to measuring the advantages of prosthetic limbs over a healthy, functioning, living, breathing, bleeding limb, there’s no competition. The real will always win out but for those of us who do not have that choice, we should not be limited with how we compensate for our loss.

The fact that the conversation has jumped from one of pity to praise and then on one of envy, followed by whines of ‘that’s not fair’, it means that disability is no longer viewed as restrictive.

But, if Gregg’s play predicts the future correctly, when it comes to the cyborg takeover, we’ll remember who feared us. Oh, yes.

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