In August of 2012, Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee from South Africa, sprinted the 400-meter semifinals of the Olympics on carbon-fiber prosthetics. In November, Zac Vawter controlled his new bionic legs with his mind to climb to the top of Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower)
These separate events were both triumphs for the athletes, able to compete against non-disabled people, as well as the army of prosthetic engineers who have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of everyday people.
Pistorius’ blade-runner feet have been so effective, that some have raised questions about whether they give the runner an unfair advantage. The bionic legs worn by Vawter, himself a software engineer, have even bigger implications.
Vawter lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident. He underwent a highly experimental surgery called TMR or Targeted Muscle Reinnervation. Basically TMR takes stray nerves at the site of amputation and re-directs them into muscles elsewhere in the leg. When the brain sends the signal to those nerves, the muscle contract. Researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago places electrodes onto Vawter’s amputated thigh to detect the contractions. A computer chip then translates those signals into commands for his motorized prosthetic.
“We learned what patterns look like when Zac wants to bend his knee or climb the stairs,” – lead scientist Levi Hargrove.
2012 was a breakthrough year for prosthetics, but as machine parts become better integrated with biology, we are beginning to glimpse a future: a future without disability, but also a future where mankind chooses to augment themselves for a variety of reasons.
“Society should begin to question social norms that label amputees as disabled.”