Recently, the Amputee Coalition of America (ACA) produced five public service announcements, unfortunately titled “InspiretoElevate,” to raise awareness of limb loss. In them, several people with prosthetic legs are profiled. Three of the five are athletes, one is an actress in darn good shape who we see dancing, and one is identified as a writer/producer—shown playing baseball. Most were fairly young. Are they all admirable? Yes. Representative? No.
I am grateful to the ACA for its advocacy work on behalf of amputees, its dissemination of information, its training of peer visitors (of which I am one), its encouragement of community. But I take issues with the PSAs. Training the spotlight on athletes and those who are clearly physically fit perpetuates the trope that all amputees are bionic marvels capable of incredible feats. (There have even been controversies about whether or not prosthetics afford athletic competitors unfair advantages.)
Most of us are not in our prime, running races or climbing mountains or snowboarding. The vast majority of lower leg amputations in the United States are due to diabetes and vascular disease, and the people undergoing these surgeries are mainly over 65. But even most younger amputees are not Amy Purdys or Kevan Hueftles. My guess, and I admit it’s just a guess, is that most of the amputee athletes were athletes before losing a limb. They continue to be athletes afterwards, as the rest of us continue to be teachers, lawyers, parents, writers, students, psychologists, entrepreneurs—well, everything else.
It is easier for society to accept images of attractive, active people. But perpetuating these representations is misleading — and harmful. What are the rest of us supposed to feel when we are not chosen to be the public face of the community? That we better get ourselves out there on the track or in the gym? That we have fallen short of the mark? That we are not the “good” amputees the world wants to see? Better stay out of sight or people might think we’re, heaven forbid, disabled. That there is actually a downside to having limb difference or losing a limb and that we might need support from the government, health insurers and manufacturers. The reality is that many amputees struggle to get prostheses or receive inadequate, antiquated artificial limbs. They certainly can’t afford to get an extra specialized leg for running, for example.
I did write to the ACA about my concerns and received what amounted to a “Thank you for contacting us” form response. I don’t exactly feel heard. I understand it is harder for a lot of folks to feel comfortable with disabled bodies and lives that are not exceptional in some way. But until society can do that, issues of exclusion, discrimination and inaccessibility will persist. The ACA took the easy way out this time—instead of leading, it followed the example of advertisers who sometimes feature athletes with disabilities to make a show of how much they care about inclusivity. I hope in the future we will see, instead, from all sources, images of people with disabilities just going about our business, doing things like grocery shopping, like ordinary people.