Being a cyborg is cool right now, thanks in large part to gee-whiz media coverage. But actually using a bionic arm can really suck.
While shopping online, I land on the site of one of the dozens of new, high-tech prosthetic arm companies and pulled up some of their videos to get a closer look at socket designs. Instead, I get yet another example of what I call “prosthetic unboxing videos” so popular on TikTok and local news stations alike.
These videos are a cliché by now: young kids with missing limbs wiggling with joy as they unbox and put on a new prosthetic arm for the first time. In 2015, Robert Downey Jr. himself presented a then seven-year-old boy with a 3D-printed Iron Man–styled prosthetic arm.
These videos never show prosthesis users doing two-handed tasks. Instead, they do things most of them would only ever undertake with their other fleshy hand, like write or drink water. These videos, for the most part, exist to emotionally move the non-disabled viewer (that’s what we in the community call “disability porn,” folks).
Don’t get me wrong — I have been psyched about a new arm, too! But the media’s coverage of these new kinds of prosthetics is so focused on the initial joy or incredulity — on the idea that “lives are changed” — that they forget to ask if these hands are actually useful and what happens in the weeks and months after the unboxing.
Because every upper-limb amputee (acquired or congenital) has a unique body, their experiences with prostheses and the prosthetists who provide them vary dramatically, making user experience especially difficult to study. Upper-limb prosthesis user dissatisfaction is generally very high, with the majority of users in one recent study reporting very negative experiences. Recent studies report rejection rates — those at which people discontinue using their prostheses entirely — as high as 44 percent.
The average percentage is likely even higher among children because they more often will lose patience while learning how to control prostheses and experience greater discomfort with the weight. Even as prostheses have advanced to the point of becoming points of fascination on TikTok and the Forbes website, user satisfaction has largely stagnated in recent decades. Still, it should be noted that the rate of satisfaction of users of this new wave of prosthetic arms hasn’t yet been the subject of a large-scale study. [ … ]