Undercover as a Discreet Amputee

The cast of CBS’s Survivor: Vanuatu sat around their new camp and watched in shock as one of the physical leaders of the day removed the bottom of his break-away pants to reveal a prosthetic leg. Chad Crittenden used this moment – in front of his new teammates and millions of television viewers – to dispel everyone’s preconceived notions about amputees.

“It is an interesting dilemma … letting somebody know that you have a disability,” Crittenden said. “Also, if you are going to divulge that, first prove yourself as someone that can do everything that any able-bodied person can do, and then reveal it and see the reactions afterward.”

He believes this method keeps people from reverting back to their original ideas.

Most often, the scenario is less dramatic for amputees revealing their prostheses. Typically, it comes up in conversation with a close friend or colleague, as would any other personal detail. There are also situations where amputees might need to point out their disability to those around them.

“I went to one ACA support meeting where someone said she tends to tell people when she is walking up the stairs because that is when it is more obvious,” said Sabrina Breed, PhD, clinical psychologist, practicing psychologist and codirector of the internship training program in the department of rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.

“I think, for a lot of people, it is just about not necessarily wanting to lead with that [when meeting someone], and being able to have other elements of who they are come to the forefront.”

Concealing vs. not revealing

Charlie Steele’s first experience with disguising amputation was 17 years ago, when his prosthetist cast him for a prosthesis and gave him a cosmetic covering.

“I just thought that was normal,” he said. “I hadn’t even thought about it myself.”

He has refused cosmetic coverings for the two prostheses he has had since.

As a peer visitor for the Amputee Coalition of America, Steele tries to help many amputees with the body image issues they face after amputation.

“On some peer visits, I would notice people hiding their residual limbs and they hadn’t even gotten fitted [for their prostheses] yet.

“Coping with loss covers a lot of situations, but much of it has to do with … your overall personality,” Steele said. “People who could care less about their appearance and are just happy-go-lucky, when this happens, they adjust and go on with it and probably do not have any issues with their prostheses.

“But if you have someone [who perceives] any little thing as different, this limb loss is probably going to be big for them, and they will be the ones who will most likely try to hide it.”

For a variety of reasons, including the location of the amputation and a minimal gait change, transtibial amputations are easiest to conceal.

“Folks with disabilities – basically lower limb amputations, especially below the knee – can choose whether someone knows or not,” Crittenden said. “There is a whole unknown realm of judgments and thoughts and feelings from those that are around them once they reveal that they have a fake foot.

“For this specific type of disability, people are making choices,” he said.

Badges of honor

open doorSteele has become comfortable with his own amputation, and displays it accordingly.

“It doesn’t bother me. I consider it a badge of honor,” he said.

He tries to incorporate his confidence into his peer visitations, where he always wears shorts.

“[I tell them], ‘You are going to get stares. That is human nature,’” Steele said. “I have been through more stuff than most people and I want to let them know that I am still out here, smiling, whistling, feeling good about my life. I just adjusted and I am moving on.”

Steele considers this hardship his “edge” over other people. Yet one man’s badge of honor can be another woman’s secret.

Carmen Faris became a transtibial amputee in 2001 after injuries from a car accident revealed osteosarcoma in her left leg. Her battle with cancer has become something she cannot hide; her amputation, however, is her secret to tell.

“I actually did not make the decision,” Faris said. “It just evolved. But once I went there, I was happy to keep up the charade.”

Her prosthetist fashioned a cosmetic covering that is so lifelike, a friend’s elderly uncle recently said that Faris has nice legs.

“I quickly sent an e-mail to that wonderful prosthetist who made my leg!” she said.

Many amputees feel that today’s society more easily accepts male amputees than female amputees.

“Male amputees have no problems. They do not wear covers and they are open to the world. But the standards are different for men,” Faris said. “Female amputees have different levels and different stressors. There are certain things that work for men that do not work for us, because as an amputee and a woman, we are fighting for that female identity. When you walk around totally exposed, you lose some of that.

“Above all else, I am a woman. I never wear pants because I do not want to relinquish that,” she said.

Steele agrees.

“Most women are concerned about their appearance, and it is important for them to have something that gives them more of a normal appearance. The men tend not to get [cosmetic] covers because they walk around showing the metal like a badge of honor.”

A time and a place

Faris’ decision to conceal her prosthesis in most situations derived from her desire to have a choice in the way others view her.

“I do not want people judging me on what they think I cannot do,” Faris said.

As a litigator in New York, she spends a good deal of time in front of an audience.

“When you are standing up in front of a courtroom trying to argue a case, you should be impressing whomever you are arguing to on the basis of what your argument is, not what you look like.”

Even Steele, who feels proud of overcoming adversity, has failed to reveal his prosthesis in some situations. When he moved from Atlanta in 1997, he asked for help from a few of the men who worked in the building where he lived. He had been friendly with them over the years and they agreed, but then he had to cancel their plans when he got a crack in his prosthesis.

“When I came back, I said, ‘Sorry guys, I had to take the leg in for an oil and lube job.” Because they looked confused, Steele clarified that he had to get his prosthetic leg fixed. “They said, ‘We just thought you had a bad football knee!’ It was because [I had a normal] gait and cosmetic cover.”

One common theme among amputees is that most feel it is unnecessary to tell someone about their amputation at the same time as their name.

A transtibial amputee since a physical assault in 1987, Erika Stone views amputeeism the same way she views religion.

“I don’t want to carry religion on my sleeve,” Stone said. “That is the way I feel about this. I don’t want to show it off.”

Stone, an 83-year-old semi-retired documentary photographer, feels it is better to build a relationship with someone before revealing her prosthesis.

“Why shock people with it right away?” she said.

Though Faris refers to herself as a discreet amputee, she spends much of her free time as a peer volunteer and mentor for amputees and cancer patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Fisher House and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

She asks those she visits, “See how good cancer looks?”

“Even though I hid it for many years from people, secretly, I am jumping for joy,” Faris said. “My amputation was not as devastating as it might have been for someone else because, for me, it was life and death.”

In the end, Faris retains the right to reveal her personal stories – including her amputation – to whomever she pleases.

“I pride myself on being honest,” she said. “I do not feel bad about being deceptive because it is my life.”

Stephanie Z. Pavlou is a staff writer for O&P Business News

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