Saturday, January 12, 2008

Pistorius II

Study Suggests That Amputee Holds an Unfair Advantage - New York Times

No longer subscription only. It seems we have reached an outcome in the fuss over whether Pistorius's prosthetics give him an "advantage."

Comparing Pistorius with able-bodied athletes running at the same speed, Brueggemann said he determined that, “In his blade, the energy returned was very high and the loss of energy was less than 10 percent in the artificial joint,” he said.

“Interestingly, in the human ankle joint, the energy loss is much higher in maximum speed sprinting,” he added. “This means the blade is able to replace the whole kinetic chain of the human leg and the prosthetics are much more efficient from a mechanical point of view.”

Brueggemann said this did not necessarily translate to a general advantage. But he did establish that this “different kind of locomotion” was also more efficient from a physiological standpoint.

“In the 400 meters, he was able to run at the same speed as the control subjects, but his oxygen intake was much lower,” he said.

I'm tired of the commonplaces that the things disabled people use to live confer "advantages." Buy your dog a jacket ... boom! It's a service animal. Now, you can take her everywhere with you. Declare a learning disability. boom! More time on the test ... and, perhaps, a private room. Parking? No problem, dude.

I understand the study; I understand the rationale that the energy lost using a prosthetic is less than the energy using a flesh-bone ankle. Really, I get this; I can also understand the point about oxygen usage. The upshot is that Pistorius's prosthetics are so well-designed that they outstrip what the human body can do.

Except they don't. Well, not exactly. Pistorius may be more efficient in his prosthetic legs, but it's not as if he were out there beating the all the world records. He's not beating the crap out of these frail non-cyborg beings; he's running pretty much equally with the best of them. It's true that 5 years from now, Pistorius may have legs that will enable him to better his current times and current world record times -- engineering changes. But it is also true that in 5 years' time, humans may be able to run faster. Records fall regularly: 20 years ago, some of today's times would have seemed impossible.

So, perhaps there is a legitimate fear that engineering developments will outstrip human progress ... I also think, however, that something else is going on.

It seems, to me at least, that some of the fear arises from the nondisableds incomplete understandings of disability and the ways disabled bodies and their assistive technologies are connected.

Pistorius is running on the most efficient legs possible for his body. These are the best that we can make for his particular body and his particular set of activities. We design wheelchairs on that principle -- the best for the body and the person's life, within the limits of technologies and human knowledge. That's what orthotists and prosthetists spend years learning how to do. That's what people who design wheelchairs do. That's what I as a wheelchair user expect. But even if you were to give me the best racing technologies possible, I would not be a successful racer; I've tried it. Racing involves more than the ability to move quickly.

More disturbing is the newspaper coverage. There's the usual stereotypes: Pistorius is courageous, inspiring, etc. And some frustration from the disability community because Pistorius doesn't identify as disabled. (Sigh: on both counts). But with the IAAF decision, coverage has turned a little nasty. Pistorius is "cheating." Heroic, yes. Inspiring, yes. But now, he's also a cheater.

I love this article in response: Kara notes that everyone says it would be cheating for Pistorius to run an Olympic race, but somehow it is OK for him to compete in the Paralympics. Oh, the irony!

1 comment:

  1. Happened to be talking someone familiar with the Pistorius story today. Energy efficiency is only once factor in how a runner uses his/her feet, whether flesh or mechanical. Didn't an earlier race show traction to be an issue in this case, for example? There are surely other factors left out of this latest analysis, too.