Cut and Loss: When Disability Strikes
Amputation does not judge based on age, health, or the circumstances of one’s birth. It could happen to anyone with incredible swiftness and devastation. From thighs to knuckle bones, amputation is disabling and all-encompassing, inflicting physical trauma, psychological stress, and social discrimination.
Although critical illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, and arterial diseases are common culprits, people without pre-existing health conditions are not immune. Cut infections – particularly on the lower extremities – severe burns and frostbites can also result in permanent disabilities. Even if one is cautious and thorough by nature, careless drivers, unguarded and/or broken machinery, and patriotic duties are the ever-chaotic harbingers of physical trauma. It’s truly an unpredictable and unprecedented disability that can derail the most unsuspecting.
The prevalent attitude toward amputation
Aside from the naïve “It won’t happen to me” attitude toward amputation, perhaps the most common misconception is that amputation is strictly physical – after all, it is simply the removal of a part from the whole. Here, to better understand the debilitating loss, the whole is to be defined as: “The physical, mental, emotional and social status of the individual”. Indeed, on a merely physical level, it is the separation of flesh from flesh, however, within the brain, the effect is amplified from function to dysfunction.
New amputees experience feelings of denial, shock, self-loath, helplessness, and disconnection to name a few. Difficulties concentrating, social anxiety, stress, and depression reflect the darker side of amputation, affecting daily activities and pursuits. While psychological and emotional responses to amputation vary greatly, it typically arises from how little control they feel they have over their lives. With many amputees describing their early feelings as akin to being on a roller-coaster ride, it is important that they have the support, structure, and resources they need to accept and engage in their new reality.
Normally, after working through the initial sense of grief and loss, amputees are encouraged to occupy themselves. Usually, this involves engaging in enjoyable activities and creative goals such as reading and discovering new ways of tackling daily chores. For many, it is about resuming their regular schedules including going to work and gossiping around the water cooler. To re-familiarize oneself with society through employment is crucial to self-healing, growth, and acceptance.
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding amputation is significantly different from other physical and mental disabilities. While genetic blindness and autism are recognized as intrinsic disabilities out of one’s control, amputation is commonly perceived as self-inflicted and even deserved. No parent has ever pointed to a person with Down syndrome and angrily warned their children that such a disability will befall them should they not listen to instructions as they do with a passing amputee. People with amputation are treated as spectacles – a walking accident and forewarning for normal society. Thus, despite overcoming serious physical, psychological, and emotional struggles, they are aggressively marginalized due to their manageable disability.
Social discrimination against people of disabilities is illegal under The Canadian Human Rights Act, but that does not deter employers from rejecting applicants and returning employees with amputations. In fact, it breeds sneakiness. Promises of employment after traumatic and/or surgical amputation usually proves to be empty, misconstrued and short-lasting.
As Orthotics and Prosthetics Community revealed through a study conducted with 1,000 industrial amputees at the Ontario Worker’s Compensation Board, “Although 65% of the amputees reported that the accident employer had offered continuing employment, only 21% actually returned to their pre-amputation job”. Upon further research, it was discovered that “More than half of the subjects identified negative repercussions of their amputation including reduced potential salary increases and fewer opportunities for job promotion. Forty-four per cent reported that job security was adversely affected by amputation. One-quarter of the amputees employed at the time of this review noted that they had experienced periods of unemployment lasting more than six months since the amputation.”
For those without claims, the story is even more heartbreaking. If one was not ‘let go’ due to company downsizing, it was because of their sudden decrease in work quality and efficiency. Masked behind the comforting lie that all employees are evaluated under the same standards regardless of ability, employers are able to easily justify their discriminatory practices. What’s more? Amputees’ lack of employment, financial security, and independence is often misunderstood as not trying hard enough. The notion of the noble amputee sacrificing and pushing beyond their limits is damaging, to say the least. The pressure to reform society as a whole against unrelenting social discrimination is nothing short of psychological abuse.
Surely, expectations are high – be active, be happy, be employed – begetting an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, but amputees need not achieve it all at once nor by themselves. Family, friends, and countless resources are available to them every step of the way from accepting physical restrictions and overcoming psychological distress to finding employment and fighting social discrimination.
For a roller-coaster ride experience, it’s important that they know that the feelings and struggles are temporary and that whole or not, they are undeniably enough.