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Disability

Designing The iPhone Case Of Prosthetic Leg Covers

The Confetti was designed not only to be accessible, but to answer the question: why shouldn't a prosthetic leg cover be cooler than a regular leg?

Prosthetic leg covers usually try to look like real legs. Flesh tone and shaped like a human leg, some even have a fake sock attached, or some other quotidian detail meant to imitate life. The result can be a bit uncanny. They rarely trick the eye on a second glance, and probably cause more staring, not less.

So the makers of the Confetti went the opposite direction. They designed a prosthetic leg cover that comes in bright colors–even glitter. It looks nothing like a leg, but why should it? If fake leg covers implicitly say that amputees should want a real leg, the Confetti’s message is: you can be proud that you don’t.

When the leading Brazilian prosthetics company, Ethnos, hired FURF Design Studio (Mauricio Noronha and Rodrigo Brenner, who were both 25 at the time) to design a new 3D-printed version of their product, they’d originally wanted to jump on the custom, 3D-printed bandwagon. Instead, with the help of the very young designers, they ended up innovating in the other direction and with the release of the Confetti in 2017, disrupting the entire industry.

If fake leg covers implicitly say that amputees should want a real leg, the Confetti’s message is: you can be proud that you don’t.

The Confetti was not the first cover to call off the leg look in favor of a unique design. But it is the first ever unique and affordable cover, and the first mass-produced cover. No two amputees are alike, which means that every cover needs a certain degree of customization, adding to expense. FURF solved for this by making the Confetti easy for amputees to customize themselves. About 70% of amputees can use it and the next iteration of the product which is underway will hopefully accommodate 90% of amputees. The mass produced product costs 1/10th of the price of a 3D-printed custom cover and less than half the price of standard covers. Made of injected polyurethane, it’s also lighter and more durable.

The Confetti is the only product to ever win all three of the most important product design awards: the Red Lion, the iF Design Award, and the Cannes Lion. Folks sat caught up with Mauricio and Rodrigo to talk about their design process and what they learned along the way.

Mauricio Noronha and Rodrigo Brenner of the FURF Design Studio.

What did you learn in the design process that lead to your decision to ditch the fake leg look?

Mauricio: During our research process, we wanted to get as close as possible to the reality of amputees. So we interviewed and spent time with as many as we could. Usually, when they lose their leg, they get a prosthetic that’s a metal tube, and a cover that looks like a leg. A lot of amputees said that the fact that covers try to look like a leg is just too weird. Even with amazingly realistic ones, they said that looking down and seeing a leg that is not actually your leg gave them a strange feeling. They said they didn’t recognize themselves in the mirror. So we went with the extreme opposite. We wanted to do a leg that would be even cooler than a regular leg.

We wanted to do a leg that would be even cooler than a regular leg.

Rodrigo: A century ago, glasses weren’t cool either. They were seen as a handicap. Now, even people that don’t need them want to wear glasses for style. We wanted the Confetti to be another accessory that people can use to express their identities. So depending on the person’s mood, they can customize it with different colors. An athlete representing Brazil in the Olympics wore his half green and half yellow. Another day we were with a girl who was wearing a pink confetti and when we went to a bar at night, she had changed to black and put some flowers in the holes. The holes are there to make it lighter but also more customizable.

The Confetti leg cover fits 70% of all prosthetics, and looks cool doing it.

What went into the decision to ditch the 3D-printed idea in favor of mass production?

Mauricio: When we design something, we like to think about what we are bringing into the world: not just the project itself, but how it’s going to make people feel. In the end, the feeling we wanted to give amputees was self-esteem. Self-esteem isn’t something that people should have to buy. Most of the people we interviewed and spent time with were in the favelas (Brazilian shanty towns – ed.) They were poor people. We learned in our research that the countries that have the most amputees are Brazil, India, and China. So we knew we wanted to make it affordable.

Rodrigo: The 3D printed covers came out a few years ago and yeah, they look really cool, but they’re really expensive! They cost around $4,000 Reals. That’s because it’s a tailor made process. If you had to get all of your clothes tailored, they’d probably look great on you but they’d be really expensive too. We realized that if we made the 3D-printed cover we’d been hired to make, most of the amputees we interviewed would never be able to buy it. That wouldn’t have been fair. So we wanted to make the medium sized T-shirt of prosthetic leg covers. We wanted it to be as one-size-fits-all as possible and also mass produced so it could be cheap.

We wanted to make the medium sized T-shirt of prosthetic leg covers.

To be able to do both, people were going to have to be able to customize it themselves. The way it works is that you cut the bottom tabs to make it the right length for your leg. It fits above- and below-the-knee amputations. You snap the front and back together with magnets. There are no screws so it’s totally waterproof. It was really complicated to create such a simple shape.

V2 of the Confetti aims to up compatibility to 90% of all leg amputees.

Besides all the awards from the design industry, what has the reception been like to the product? What’s going to happen with covers now?

Mauricio: People also told us that every day, even when they were feeling OK with their condition and good about themselves, somebody, maybe a kid, would point a finger, or stare, or ask what happened. Society’s lack of common sense would force them to relive their situation and bring them down. Many said they tried to hide their legs. But after they started using the Confetti, amputees told us that people still approached them but with a different vibe, more like, “wow, that’s a really cool leg!” They stopped hiding their legs by wearing pants all the time. One guy said he started wearing shorts again after 10 years. Other people said they started going back to the beach. That made us so happy. They are little things but they are important!

Rodrigo: Also, the foam, fake leg covers that were provided by the Brazilian public health system cost a thousand reals (around $265 USD – ed.) Since ours only costs 400, it’s now in the health system. People can choose which they want, and they get ours for free. That happened last year. Now we’re selling in fifteen other countries too.

Are you going to design more for products for people with disabilities?

Mauricio: This was our first health industry product. We used to design mostly furniture and some crazy things that don’t have names but now we’re designing more for the health industry.

All of the medical things that surround you just look…medical. They don’t look like they’re trying to make you feel better at all. That’s what we want to do.

Rodrigo: There’s a lot of opportunity because when someone is sick or has a disability, all of the medical things that surround you just look…medical. They don’t look like they’re trying to make you feel better at all. That’s what we want to do. We want to make it cool!

Mauricio: And we want to add a touch of poetry! The symbolism of the name is that confetti is light, colorful, and democratic; everyone uses it and they use it in moments of joy. We really don’t think the world needs another chair but it does cry out for more self esteem, more poetry, and more love. That’s what we hope to do with our products.

Disability

These Boston Marathon Bombing Survivors (And Their Dog) Wrote A Book To Teach Kids About Disability

Inspired by the four-legged friend who helped turn their life around, amputees Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes are sparking a conversation about disability.

Collaborating on a book under the best of circumstances is not always easy. Now imagine that you are Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, first-time authors and husband-and-wife survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and you’re drawing on your own experiences to write a picture book for children about a girl who has her legs amputated but finds solace from a specially trained service dog named Rescue.

Kensky, 37, and Downes, 35, don’t have to imagine it. They lived through that apocalyptic ordeal, lost limbs, endured tortuous therapy, and managed to write Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship (Candlewick Press), a truthful but sensitive story that offers hope and, more importantly, gives kids a way to talk about what it’s like to be “disabled.” Kensky and Downes spoke to us from their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, along with Rescue, their six-year-old black Labrador and the real star of their in-person book signings and readings.

Jessica Kensky, Patrick Downes, and their service dog, Rescue.

You didn’t set out to write a book until a friend and children’s book agent suggested it. What convinced you?

PD: We noticed early on that when we started going out in public in wheelchairs, with crutches and with our prosthetics—

JK: —and without our prosthetics.

“We realized that by engaging kids in this conversation, we were demystifying
what it means to be a person with a disability.”

PD: —and without our prosthetics and with Rescue, kids would see us and work really hard to figure out what they were seeing. We’d invite them to come over and investigate our wheelchair and our prosthetics. They’d start asking questions about how our legs work and how we got around and what Rescue could do for us. Once they started to touch our different medical equipment and pet Rescue, they became more fascinated. We realized that by engaging kids in this conversation, we were demystifying what it means to be a person with a disability.

What was it like collaborating on this project?

JK: It was really fun. If it wasn’t, we never would have worked on it because we did the bulk of the work while we were at Walter Reed and I was having a lot of surgeries. I ended up losing another limb. I was so sad and so depressed and so hopeless that I wasn’t able to do normal life things, but this was always a fun, therapeutic thing to work on. I think our marriage works in a way that the book works in that we bring very different things to the table. I’m very literal and want to be very accurate and educational, and Patrick was going to be a little more playful.

Rescue being “interviewed” about the book he inspired.

Can you give me an example?

JK: We decided not to use the word “amputate” because we thought that was not going to be a word that a lot of kids might understand. Patrick’s training helped in how to be honest and age-appropriate, so we landed on something like: “In order to be healthy again, Jessica’s leg had to be removed.” I wrote a line about myself that I was so nice and so pretty, which kids always laugh at.

What was the hardest part to write?

JK: Deciding what was accurate and what was not necessary for the story. It was hard to narrow the scope about what parts should be included and also where to start the story. I think the book ended up being a lot better by having the character lose her second leg the way that she did because it’s this huge setback in the book. I think a lot of times in life as a child and an adult, you think you’ve made it through something and then you realize you have to go all the way back to the beginning. It’s an extreme example, but it’s something that a lot of people and children can relate to.

Did anything surprise you during the writing process?

JK: The process was really organic and really natural. Even though it was kind of about what happened to us, it felt lighter and it was a departure from the everyday grind of our recovery. I think that’s what was so surprising about it: how fun and therapeutic it was.

PD: Reminding ourselves that we could use our professional, educational training to tell a complicated story for the greater good, to really highlight certain scenes that we’ve encountered but use it in a way that could be educational and empowering to others. It brought us to tears regularly to see how young kids have taken to it.

“For me, kids have never once asked me something that made me sad or upset me in any way. Adults ask questions that can be piercingly painful.”

Is there a question you get tired of answering?

JK: For me, kids have never once asked me something that made me sad or upset me in any way. Adults ask questions that can be piercingly painful, [such as]: if we’re having children—which is a personal question in general. It always amazes me that people feel entitled to ask me that. Or they’ll also ask in an elevator, riding two flights up with them: what happened to your leg? Maybe I’m having one minute that day when I’m not thinking about it and I don’t really want to share with a stranger the worst day of my life. But I could be in that same elevator ride and in that same mood and have a kid ask me if I was part robot and it always makes me laugh.

PD: Because our story of injury and recovery has been so public, people feel in some cases entitled to ask questions well beyond what you would normally ask someone, that social norms don’t apply.

It’s been almost a year since you returned home from Walter Reed. What can you tell me about your recovery?   

JK: I think we recently hit a new phase of recovery that eluded us for a long time. Patrick and I find ourselves struggling and working on this idea of reintegration. Both of us thought it was going to be easier and quicker. It’s this weird time when you’re in the thick of it. You’re daydreaming about the time when you’re healthy enough to move back home and do things again like school and work and travel, yet you’re in it and it’s really hard. Life looks very different than we ever imagined. That gets kind of confusing.

And health wise?

JK: We’re what’s called community ambulators. Most days, we both wear our prosthetics for most of the day. We still use wheelchairs at night and in the morning and whenever one of us is having a bad day or an issue with a prosthetic. For the most part, we’re able to stand, walk in the grocery store, run errands, go to schools and things. Again, it’s a relatively new phase. I’ve only been walking consistently with two prosthetics for about a year. We’re in this kind of—I don’t know—recalibration. It’s hard to describe.

What role does Rescue play?  

JK: When I got him, I was very focused that he’s going to help me navigate this new life. He can turn off lights, open certain doors, bring me my phone, pick things up off the floor. What I didn’t think about was how he brought lightness and laughter back in. Pets have a way of being in the moment and keeping you in the moment.

The cover of “Rescue & Jessica.”

Give me an example.

JK: Patrick and I will be having a really intense or serious conversation and he’ll start snoring and it makes us laugh. I bring him to class with me and we’ll be having a really boring lecture and you’ll hear him let out this big huge sigh. There were times when Patrick and I were so distraught and so exhausted, we had no words left to say to each other, but we would always go out and throw a ball for Rescue. I think it was our way to meditate and to watch this beautiful animal be so coordinated and athletic and effortless at a time when we were in so much pain and couldn’t get around and really felt the opposite of all those things.

“I think a lot of times in life as a child and an adult, you think you’ve made it
through something and then you realize you have to go all the way back to the beginning.”

Any thoughts for someone who might be coping with a similar life-changing event?

PD: The most important ingredient of any recovery, of resiliency, is having some kind of companionship and community. You can tell people to suck it up or be tenacious, never give up—but you need good people surrounding you to encourage you, to pick you up, to just be sad with you, to distract you. That is really the key to moving on and moving through and still finding meaning in life.

JK: When I lost one leg, I literally said to my dad at the time: over my dead body will they take my other leg. Then years later, there I was advocating for myself to have a second amputation. So, just not to overestimate yourself and what you can overcome, what you can get used to, what you can adapt to. These cliched things are so true. The one about: You don’t know how strong you are until you have to be. If someone told me: could you get through this situation?  I’d say absolutely never. I loved my legs, I loved running—all these things either I can’t do now or they’re different or they’re very challenging. I never thought I could have some love and life and quality of life like this.

Disability

Not Your Average Stay-At-Home Dad

Born with one arm, my husband faced a lifetime of workplace prejudice, until he finally found the perfect job: raising our son.

One sultry night in Cuba, I met the man who would become my husband. But I must have had a couple of cocktails that first night talking to him, because it wasn’t until the next day that I realized he only had one arm.

Taking furtive glances at Justin’s arm, which ends just after the elbow joint, I felt awkward: had I missed the window where it would be okay to ask what happened? What was the etiquette here? But thankfully, he spared me any awkwardness by launching into it himself, explaining how it got chewed off during a fight with an alligator. Later, he admitted that he’d been lying: it was lopped off in a gruesome helicopter accident. And later that night, he retconned the accident yet again, explaining it had happened during a particularly vicious knife fight in a Havana nightclub.

Outside of his rugged Canadian good looks (he made me write that!), that silly sense of humor is what attracted me to Justin from the get-go, and has helped sustain us through our marriage. His ability to laugh despite the odds helped to smooth out the edges of early marriage when life kept throwing obstacles at us, the most notable and the hardest to traverse being his employment status.

It didn’t matter if he was fully qualified, or passed the proper training courses before applying; hiring managers would take just one look at his stub, and decide he couldn’t do a job.

Despite his competence, my husband has had difficulty finding work. It didn’t matter if he was fully qualified, or passed the proper training courses before applying; hiring managers would take just one look at his stub, and decide he couldn’t do a job. In one particularly horrible experience, a job offer made to him when he was wearing a thick jacket was retracted the next day when he came to sign paperwork wearing only short sleeves.

Justin swimming with our son.

Whenever we faced prejudice like this, we wondered if we could perhaps complain, report someone, get some justice. But there was never any explicit proof, leaving us feeling gaslighted, and doubting ourselves about whether Justin had done something wrong. Not only was it hard on our marriage, it was hard on my husband: being rejected over and over again damaged Justin’s self-esteem, and made it harder for him to see his self-worth… even though he’d been living with this sort of prejudice for some time.

Officially diagnosed with congenital amputation, an alligator didn’t really take my husband’s arm, but a quirk of nature, played out before even took his first breath. When he emerged as a one-month premature, 4 pound, 11 ounce baby, he also surprised everyone in the delivery room by only having one arm. As he grew, he tried a number of prosthetic arms designed with different purposes in mind, but Justin always preferred to figure out how to get by with the limbs he’d been given.

And that’s something he’s remarkably good at. After 11 years of marriage and over 14 years since that night on the beach in Cuba, I haven’t witnessed many things that my husband can’t do. He drives, he fishes, he swims, he kayaks…. and, with the addition of our son four years ago, I even discovered he could change dirty diapers.

But his abilities were not what recruiters saw at all. Instead of seeing him as more competent and resourceful because of all he could do with one arm, they deemed him unsuitable for his lack of limb. Consequently, he spent many years lurching from one temporary low paying job to the next.

Instead of seeing him as more competent and resourceful because of all he could do with one arm, they deemed him unsuitable for his lack of limb.

So after our son was born and my writing career blossomed we faced a choice. We could put our son in daycare while Justin tried to find yet another directionless gig, or we could make a change and set him up with a new employer who didn’t care how many arms he had: our son.

Making the choice to become a stay at home dad was relatively easy for Justin. Looking after children is difficult for any full-time parent, but for Justin, the benefits were better than any other job he’d ever had. For my husband, there couldn’t be a better job than spending all day with his son. Sure, he’s not exactly the typical stay-at-home parent: you can’t exactly see him making his own Play-Doh, or attending “Mommy and Me” classes. But if his life has proven anything, Justin could make this role work.

Now, when I’m working, I’ll sometimes be interrupted by excited screams echoing through the house, as the boys fend off an alien attack every bit as vividly imagined as the crocodile attacks and helicopter accidents Justin joked with me about our first weekend together. Or I’ll come down during a break from work, and see a house that looks like fifty kids ran wild through it. And I smile, knowing that my husband has finally found a job he loves.

Sometimes, when I’m working at a coffee shop, he’ll send me a quick text, joking he’s in survival mode. He’ll say: “Our son has a hard head like me, so we’re having a tough day, today.” But we feel lucky, because at least those tough days don’t include being underestimated just because of the body he lives in.

Our son, Justin’s client/boss, knows Daddy has one arm, but he doesn’t see it as a negative. He’ll stick a hand inside his shirt and say, ‘Look, I have one arm, just like Daddy.’ It’s clear from the way he looks at him that he thinks Justin is doing a great job, and so do I.