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The Sound of Science – ‘The art of prosthetics’

Welcome to The Sound of Science from WNIJ and NIU STEAM. It’s a weekly series explaining important STEM concepts. Today’s hosts are Jeremy Benson and Newt Likier.

I’m Jeremy with NIU STEAM.

And I’m Newt.

Today’s episode is about elevating the mere utility of a prosthetic to wearable art.

July was Disability Awareness Month, and we wanted to continue the conversation. Prosthetics were originally born out of necessity—someone had lost functionality of a limb or extremity and they needed it back. Early evidence shows the use of man-made body parts as far back as 3,000 years ago.

In the 1970s, an inventor named Van Philip developed the ‘Flex-Foot,’ which has evolved into the running blade you see amputee runners often use. He wasn’t satisfied with the prosthetics available at the time, which tried to mimic human bones. Instead, he watched how animals ran and how stored energy was transferred and released in things like diving boards. Then, he applied those ideas to a prosthetic that didn’t look like a human limb—but more effectively achieved the functionality he desired.

Does a prosthetic need to look like the body part it’s replacing? Many prosthetics are virtually indistinguishable from their natural counterparts, but should it have to look like the wearer doesn’t have a disability?

For some people, this is ideal. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to blend in. But hiding a disability shouldn’t be the expectation. Sophie de Oliveira Barata is a prosthetic artist who founded the Alternative Limb Project, which combines medicine, art, and technology to create wearable art. She gives voice and personality to each prosthetic she creates. One of the recipients of her work commented that he wanted a limb that reflected his personality, something that could be immediately identified as his if he left it in another room.

de Oliveira Barata draws from a wide variety of fields and functions so she can make each piece a reflection of its owner. Her celebration of disability allows our differences to matter.

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This has been the Sound of Science on WNIJ. Where you learn something new every day.

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