Progression of Perception: How Media Shapes the Way the World Sees Amputees

“It’s wood. It’s fake. Five years ago I was engaged to be married. Johnny came in here, he ordered bread from me. I put it in the slicer and I talked with him and my hand got caught ‘cause I wasn’t paying attention. The slicer chewed off my hand. It’s funny ‘cause when my fiancée saw that I was maimed, she left me for another man.”

Those lines were featured in the 1988 Academy Award nominated film, Moonstruck– which highlighted the story of Ronny Cammareri, played by Nicholas Cage, and his inner struggle to identify himself as a man following several great losses in his life – first his hand, then his fiancée.

This is just one example of the many images of amputees that the general public has been witness to over the years – arguably one of the more memorable. But what effects do images like that of Ronny Cammareri or amputee athletes, or wounded warriors have on the general public’s lasting perception of amputees? What, if anything, needs to be done to educate people on the truths and dispel the myths of amputees in the United States?

News broadcasts

As mainstream media outlets, television news broadcasts, as well as print and online news editions, are large factors in shaping American perceptions of the surrounding world. Currently, many of the images of amputees being channeled through these outlets deal with worldwide military conflicts, making it difficult to talk about perception without entering these depictions into the equation.

David Serlin, PhD, associate professor of communication and science studies at the University of California at San Diego, recalls earlier images of the effects of war and how they differ from today’s media onslaught.

“I think a lot of Americans who read the newspaper or watch television are under the impression that they are seeing a new set of representations of amputees,” Serlin said. “But every war since the Civil War has included engravings or photographs depicting veteran amputees as part of the way that media deals with war. In World War II, in Korea, and even by journalists during Vietnam, Americans have seen …beautiful black and white photos taken by official photographers.”


Progression of Perception: How Media Shapes the Way the World Sees Amputees
© 2007/Gary Cornhouse/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Enlisting photographers to capture images also allowed for censorship in the past – a sensitive topic covered in a book by George H. Roeder titled, The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two. Serlin said Roeder’s book offers compelling images of wounded soldiers, some of whom were fatally injured during World War II. These images were later censored by the State Department and hidden away in the National Archives.

This kind of censorship limited the exposure the general public had to veteran amputees and fed them only positive images of prosthetic rehabilitation, or other promising and purposefully engaging moments, such as a soldier returning to school or work. Furthermore, such positive images were made available only through the mainstream media, a much different reality when compared to the images of today.

Raphael Raphael, MA, a professor of film studies at the University of Oregon, suggests that military “representations of disabled men especially … are relatively rare [when] compared to their rate of incidence.”

Also, the narratives that feature these men, he continued, “are usually … within some kind of ‘praising technology’ narrative, [which] places priority on the technological advancement that the wounded soldier is taking advantage of, rather than their larger embodied experience with a disability.”

New media sources

New media sources are forcing change as far as determining what images are available to the public. YouTube and other media outlets, as well as personal digital images taken by returning veteran soldiers are allowing the sharing of images in their rawest forms with the public.

Serlin’s research reveals that little has changed on the part of the mainstream media despite the addition of these new media. As was evident in previous military conflicts, these outlets continue to paint an encouraging face on rehabilitation in order to dilute the negative effects of war.

“Mainstream media sources tend to show positive rehabilitation; veterans with their families, or else golfing or fishing or doing all of the ‘normal’ things that they would be able to do if they did not have a prosthetic device,” Serlin told O&P Business News. “But the more vulnerable [images of soldiers or veterans are the ones I] tend to see via YouTube or through ‘alternative media sources.’”

Essentially, images are coming from every outlet possible. Serlin explained that this proliferation of media is allowing for different images to surface that break away from the traditional. These new images, combined with on-the-ground narratives by soldiers on active duty or veterans undergoing rehabilitation, invite the public in, and inevitably shape their overarching views of amputees.

Al Pike, CP suggested that these new types of media are creating change over time.

“I feel the media is still a bit out of touch with reality, but making progress,” Pike said. “In recent times, [representations of amputees are] becoming much more positive and accurate, but I would credit the Internet and the amputee’s presence on the Internet for that.”

Athletic Debate: Helpful or Hurtful?

As a public media outlet, the athletic arena has recently become a platform for prosthetic debate. Oscar Pistorius’ headline-making bilateral running prostheses are turning heads in science and medicine and also engaging the public to challenge their own perceptions of disability. David Serlin, PhD, questions, however, whether Pistorius’ extraordinary talent is causing a stir that overrides, and in a way counteracts, the changing perception of the everyday amputee.

“It is frustrating that sometimes it is the exception that gets sensitive coverage [rather] than the people who are not seen as ‘glamorous’ or even athletically inclined,” Serlin said. “We give more authority to people who are regarded as having triumphed over their disability and have become movie stars or models or top athletes. Ordinary people do not get that same fanfare, and that is a political problem as much as it is a problem of the media.”

Serlin added that Pistorius is just one example of an exception to the rule suggesting that as a public we need to celebrate the ordinary instead of the outstanding if we ever want to truly change the way the world sees amputees, in any context.


Film and television

Present military conflict and the current events representations thereof aside, television programs and films have featured an array of amputee characters over the years – some with the solitary intention of comedic effect.

Take the role of Chubbs Peterson, played by Carl Weathers in the 1996 film Happy Gilmore for example. A former professional golfer, Peterson, takes Gilmore under his wing to mold him into a championship golfer. Peterson, depicted with an ill-fitting prosthesis, can no longer golf due to a previous altercation with an alligator that bit his hand off while he attempted to fish his ball out of a body of water. This representation pokes fun at this loss throughout the storyline.

Not all experts think this is a negative view.

“I think some of the most valuable representations of disability can be found in the genre of comedy,” Raphael told O&P Business News citing films that have been produced under the direction of the Farrelly brothers as an example.

The duo has directed films such as, Stuck on You, Kingpin and Shallow Hal, all dealing with some form of disability.

Raphael admits that oftentimes these films are dismissed as negative representations of people with disabilities but he also acknowledges that these images offer viewers the opportunity to “negotiate their own hang-ups about disabilities.”

Conversely, the Cage storyline in Moonstruck sends a different message.

“The initial storyline suggests that the prosthesis has made Cage less manly, a broken man,” Serlin said. “In other ways, and I think this is because of the emergence of disability rights awareness, the film sends the message that a man can have a prosthetic device and still be sexy.”

Television seems to be aiming to broaden exposure as well, with amputees being featured in not only sitcoms, like Arrested Development, which features Steve Ryan as J. Walter Weatherman, a one-armed man who subdues children into good behavior by frightening them, and My Name is Earl, but also in reality programming.

Amputees have been featured on The Amazing Race, Dancing with the Stars, and Survivor. Audiences and cast mates alike were stunned to find out that Chad Crittenden, cast member of Survivor: Vanuatu was a transtibal amputee after competition was already underway.

Cultural definitions

“Representations of disabled bodies … can serve to … broaden our cultural definition of what a ‘normal,’ acceptable or beautiful body can look like,” Raphael said.

But under what conditions does this apply?

Raphael argues that “increased representations of disabled bodies in media are a good thing regardless of genre,” while also calling attention to the opposition citing some film and media scholars’ desire to catalog “positive” and “negative” representations of disability.

“I disagree with this way of looking at representations of disability,” Raphael said. “The way that different viewers can create meaning … are far too varied … so suggesting that all of these images fall neatly into a pile of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ representations simply doesn’t do justice to the reality of viewers’ experiences.”

Are Filmmakers Getting It Right?

Al Pike, CP is the founder of “Amputees in Hollywood,” an online support network of aspiring and currently working amputee actors and models. He came to the role with the right experience.

About 30 years ago while he was working with Otto Bock HealthCare, he received a phone call from Industrial Light and Magic, a company that provides post-production visual effects services to the entertainment industry. They requested his assistance, and employed him as an onsite technical consultant prior to the filming of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

Since then, he has worked on other box office hits including – The Fugitive with Harrison Ford, In the Valley of Elah with Tommy Lee Jones, Charlie Wilson’s War with Tom Hanks and Planet Terror, which featured Rose McGowan as Cherry Darling armed with a machine gun above the knee prosthesis.

Additionally, he has been asked to help enlist amputees to fill media roles and write film reviews on movies with amputee characters.

Realistic representations

Pike explained that beginning with military conflicts Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, media focus shifted. American movies and television programs began to see more military amputees and many with significant errors.

One of the most common misconceptions or errors within television and film is the rehabilitation level possible with a prosthesis, Pike explained, which has been portrayed both under and over the reality of what is actually possible.

Pike recommended employing amputees to play these roles to allow for more realistic representations that can appropriately and accurately educate the public and serve as more than entertainment.

“We need to take this one step further by having more real amputees portray themselves in leading roles,” Pike told O&P Business News.

Amputees in Hollywood is putting a real face on amputees on television and in movies – a face that Pike said needs to be seen with more regularity by employing actual amputees to play amputee roles instead of using special effects and make-up to make non-amputees fit the part.



The disabled body incites an ideological crisis that goes against the prescribed American ideals, Raphael suggests.

“The disabled body seems to be perceived as a challenge to … independence and self-sufficiency, especially challenging our – largely mythological – notions of masculinity,” he said.

To overcome these perceptions, the public needs to be challenged to evaluate its own prejudices and value systems, Serlin explained. Additionally, more attention needs to be paid to “ordinary” people with amputations rather than individuals who are often identified critically as “super crips” by the disability rights advocates.

“Why does someone have to exhibit super abilities in order to be recognized as productive or ‘normal’? That I think is frustrating,” Serlin said. “Part of the goal for those within the disability rights community or people who work with orthotics or prosthetics organizations should be able to make non-disabled people aware that disability can be an ordinary phenomenon that does not define who a person is. People who use prosthetic devices or deal with amputation should not have to be superheroes in order to get respect.”

Raphael suggests inviting the general public to view those with disabilities, not through a medical lens, which focuses predominantly on the disability itself and means by which that disability is surmounted, but through a social model.

Overall, take responsibility for your own perceptions with some forethought.

The idea of ‘disability,’ Raphael said, is “something that we as a culture create together and, most importantly, is something for which we are all together responsible.”

For more information:

  • Roeder GH. The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two. Yale University Press; 1995.

Jennifer Hoydicz is a staff writer for O&P Business News.

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