There is something transformative happening in the prosthetics industry — a long-overdue awakening among product designers, those with limb differences, and the general public that is helping us take a big step toward a more inclusive society. This isn’t about science or technology or even social justice. As with most important transformations, it’s mainly a matter of the heart.
Meet Catalyst #1
Mark Williams is accustomed to big achievements. In 1982, shortly after losing his left leg below the knee in a car accident at age ten, Mark took up swimming. A mere six years later, he won one silver and one bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Paralympic Games.
A year after that, he took home three gold medals from a world championship.
In 2018, he left a successful career in sales management to launch Limb-art, a new business based on a novel product. Not only has he turned that business into a commercial success; it has also won multiple awards in the two years since.
But Mark’s biggest achievement may well turn out to be one that he never fully anticipated.
The Flagpole Leg Syndrome
When Mark wore full-length pants during his years in sales, it was difficult to tell that he wore a prosthesis, mainly because his gait is so smooth. The only time it became apparent was when a breeze flapped his pant leg around the narrow steel rod that had replaced his natural calf and shin. Mark calls this the “flagpole leg syndrome”.
Feeling self-conscious of this at times, he built a plastic cover for his prosthesis that restored the natural shape of his leg.
A few months later, after finding himself with some left-over paint from a car restoration project, he painted his leg cover bright green.
A few months after that, as Christmas approached, he added some flashing LED lights for the holidays. Feeling good about how this looked, he wore a pair of shorts to the supermarket, where he received a delightful response from a young admirer.
“Cool leg,” the child’s voice said from behind him.
Mark turned to see a small boy admiring his prosthesis.
“It made me feel good,” Mark recalls. “The little boy wasn’t looking at my leg out of sympathy or some kind of morbid fascination. He was genuinely excited about it and that made me feel proud of how it looked.”
“It was such a positive experience that, during my drive home, I began to wonder if I could help other amputees feel the same way. That’s when I first conceived Limb-art.”
So what did Mark do? He did the same thing that he did as a ten-year-old boy when he took up swimming: he dove in headfirst.
A Growing Revelation
If you talk to anyone who has ever launched a new business, it is incredibly difficult. The vast majority of new businesses fail.
Mark’s launch of Limb-art is a textbook example of how to do it properly. And with all his early success, awards, and continued expansion, it would be perfectly natural for him to want to celebrate his business achievements. But when you ask Mark about Limb-art, that’s not his main focus. What he talks about is making a difference in people’s lives — the scale of which it took him a while to fully comprehend.
“It started more or less the way I thought it would,” Mark says. “We were making these really attractive covers and whenever one of our customers would strap them on for the first time, they’d smile and their eyes would light up.”
“Then we started noticing changes in behavior. Women who had spent most of their lives trying to hide their prosthesis suddenly started wearing skirts to show them off. Same with guys and shorts. Others bought covers to match their motorcycles or multiple covers for different occasions. It became obvious that people had a strong desire to express themselves both personally and creatively.
“But I’ll tell you when it really hit home. As Christmas 2019 approached, relatives and romantic partners began buying our covers as gifts for their limb-different loved ones. Some of them filmed those loved ones opening their gifts and strapping their covers on for the first time, and then sent us the videos afterward.
“The sheer joy bubbling out of those videos was unbelievable. My wife and I spent the better part of the day watching one video after another with tears streaming down our faces. That’s when I knew that this went way beyond products or business. It was changing how people felt about themselves.”
Quotes like these from Limb-art’s customers accentuate this point:
“I love my cover. Thank you so much. I have a lot more confidence now.”
“I love my Leg cover so much. It has given me so much more confidence and feels like I have a calf shape, so I wear more skirts and dresses to show it off. You can’t tell you’re wearing it as it’s so light. I’ve had so many compliments too!”
And it’s not just these quotes. If you go on social media, amputees are posting pictures of themselves wearing beautiful and expressive prosthetic covers of every imaginable design. Think about that for a moment. For hundreds or even thousands of years, most people with limb differences have tried to hide those differences. Now they’re proudly exhibiting them online. That’s revolutionary.
As with all modern revolutions, Mark even has a hashtag for it: #standoutstandproud.
Yet, we still haven’t captured the full impact of all this because it’s not only changing how those with limb differences feel about themselves. It’s also changing how others treat them.
Breaking Down Barriers
As Mark increasingly wore his covers in public, he noticed a recurring reaction. Strangers would compliment his leg cover. They were refreshingly comfortable in doing so, often leading to positive exchanges. The same thing is happening to many of his customers.
“Normally, when you have a limb difference and you meet someone for the first time, there can be a certain amount of awkwardness,” Mark says. “Perhaps the person doesn’t know what to say so they don’t say anything. Perhaps you see them staring at your prosthesis for a little too long and it makes you feel self-conscious. Or maybe they think it’s better to ask you about your leg but then they end up making an inquiry that’s too personal.
“Having an attractive leg cover changes all that. Instead of wondering what to say, strangers are just naturally blurting out comments like, ‘Wow, cool leg’, or ‘I love your prosthesis. It looks awesome.’
“Of course, you smile and thank them when that happens, the same way that everyone responds when they receive a compliment. And, boom, any hint of awkwardness is gone.”
Boom, the awkwardness is gone. True to Mark’s humble nature, he makes that statement as a passing observation.
But here at BionicsForEveryone.com, we wonder if the revolution he has helped set in motion is bigger than any of us realize. Every day now, thousands of people are enjoying these kinds of positive interactions. Soon, it will be tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions.
And this isn’t just for lower-limb differences. A few hundred kilometers to the south of Limb-art, in the U.K. city of Bristol, another entrepreneur has been hard at work having a similar impact on those with upper-limb differences.
Meet Catalyst #2
Joel Gibbard has been building robotic hands since his teens.
In 2014, he and Samantha Payne founded Open Bionics. As with Mark Williams, they were trying to solve a practical problem. Bionic Arms had been available commercially since 2007, but they were too expensive for most of the people who needed them.
Open Bionics’ solution was to use an innovative blend of modern electromechanics and 3D printing to produce a bionic arm that cost less than half the price of its nearest competitor. Meet the Hero Arm:
If you watched that short product video, you likely noticed something else about the Hero Arm: it’s incredibly stylish. This is not a marketing ploy and it’s no accident. It’s part of something that’s every bit as remarkable as the arm itself.
A Visionary Insight
In 2014, still in his mid-twenties, Joel Gibbard gave a TEDx talk about his plans for the Hero Arm. Here is what he said about one of the problems faced by children with limb differences:
“…the other problem children can have when they’re wearing perhaps a hook prosthesis is that it can be very conspicuous and off-putting for them. Sometimes they can be bullied on the playground. But with the flexibility of the design process with 3D printing, we can get around this. I think we can design the hands, customize them a little bit, maybe like the child’s favorite superhero, like this Iron Man concept.”
Joel then displayed an early version of his Iron Man prosthesis, prompting a bit of laughter from the audience.
Undeterred, he continued: “…that way, when the child’s wearing this on the playground, perhaps they’ll be the envy of the other kids. And with the extra capability it gives them, it may even make them feel like a superhero when they’re wearing it.”
No one, including this author, fully understood what Joel meant that day. But here is his vision come to life:
These kids aren’t wearing their prostheses because they have to. They’re wearing them because they love them, because they’re proud of them, and they like how they feel when they put them on.
This is exactly what Joel predicted. Kids are no longer teasing or bullying limb-different classmates who wear a Hero Arm; they’re admiring and embracing them. They’re even asking if they, too, can have a cool robot arm! Imagine what that does for the self-esteem of limb-different children who previously felt excluded and isolated.
Actually, you don’t have to imagine. Just watch what this mother says about the emotional impact on her daughter of getting her new Hero Arm:
Yes, this is a promotional video produced by Open Bionics. But we’re certain that everything that Talullah’s mother said is authentic. Why? Because you can Google the Hero Arm and find story after story of the same positive emotional impact on children. Or you can go on social media and talk to people whose children have the arm. They’ll all say the same thing.
Not Just for Children
It is true that the Hero Arm has a particularly strong appeal for children. But its impact on adults is equally positive, witness these comments from adult customers:
“When I wear my Hero Arm I feel empowered and proud to show it off. The reaction I get when I wear it is so different to what I was used to with my old prosthetics, which at times I used to cover up and hide away. Now I want to show it off and people are genuinely interested about it and want to understand how it works.”
“When I was younger I used to wear a lot of prosthetics that didn’t really do anything other than making me feel negative about myself. People would ask me what happened to my arm, which made me feel disabled and embarrassed as though I wasn’t good enough. When I wear the Hero Arm I feel damn awesome because people’s eyes light up when they see the arm and they come over to talk to me, to ask me how cool it looks and about how it works, which of course I oblige with a great big smile on my face.”
“It’s dextrous, it’s not unsightly, and it’s completely customizable. It’s perfect. Growing up with a limb difference came with a lot of nicknames. It upset me quite a lot. The Hero Arm helps me celebrate my limb difference. By trying not to blend in it stands out, and invites people to ask questions rather than run away.”
Notice the similarity to the feelings and reactions experienced by Limb-art’s customers? There is something profoundly important and healthy going on here, something that we shouldn’t ignore. Yet, our government and insurance bureaucrats are doing just that.
The Need for a Seismic Shift in Institutional Policies
For the record, this article is not advocating that every limb-different person should wear a beautiful leg cover or a cool robotic arm. Some people like their leg prostheses the way they are and some prefer bionic arms that look natural, complete with matching skin tones and fingernails (or some other, entirely different appearance).
What we’re advocating for is choice, the same way that the rest of us get to choose the style of our hair or clothing. And we’re pointing out that, for some people, expressing themselves in a very personal manner isn’t just a matter of style. It’s a vital component of their emotional and social health.
That’s what the anecdotal feedback from Limb-art’s and Open Bionics’ customers is telling us.
Yet, there is little value placed on the appearance of prostheses in the public healthcare policies of western nations, such as the U.K, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The determination of funding is almost entirely dependent on functional criteria.
Private U.S. insurance companies are even worse because they often explicitly exclude funding for “prosthetic devices or prosthetic components that are primarily for cosmesis”.
Let’s be clear about what this means. Imagine a young girl with an upper limb difference who is quite adept with her body-powered prosthesis, but feels very self-conscious of it, tries to hide it from others, and therefore feels socially excluded/isolated. Even though a Hero Arm might completely eliminate her feelings of social stigma, vastly improving her emotional and psychological well-being, that’s not even a consideration. If she won’t experience a big enough functional leap going from her body-powered prosthesis to a bionic arm, she will be denied the upgrade.
The policy on artistic leg covers is even harsher. There is no government or insurance funding for them whatsoever, regardless of the immensely positive impact they might have on the wearer’s emotional health.
If we are going to be a caring and inclusive society, we can’t allow these overly restrictive policies to stand. We can’t and shouldn’t try to dictate to our limb-different citizens what is or isn’t important to them. We should listen to what they are telling us, and then act with the caring and compassion that they deserve.
For more information on upper limb bionics, see Understanding Bionic Arms & Hands.
For more information on lower limb bionics, see Understanding Bionic Legs & Feet.