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Berkeley Voices transcript: Britt H. Young on learning to navigate the world with the body she has

a person looks at the camera through the sides of her eyes
Britt H. Young is graduating from UC Berkeley with a Ph.D. in geography on May 15. (Photo by Gabriela Hasbun)

Listen to Berkeley Voices episode 111: Britt H. Young on learning to navigate the world with the body she has.

Anne Brice: This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.

[Music: “Cornicob” by Blue Dot Sessions]

In this episode, we hear from Britt H. Young, a Ph.D. candidate graduating from UC Berkeley’s Department of Geography on May 15.

Britt’s research focuses on the tech startup sector of Ethiopia. She looks at how development agencies are investing in tech startups in the hope that they’ll develop phone apps and other systems that’ll create more jobs. What she found, though, was that these apps and startups actually reproduce and exacerbate class lines and allow a subset of perhaps the most indigent of the population to be more exploitable.

In 2020, when the pandemic hit, fieldwork in Ethiopia got a lot harder, so a space opened up for Britt to write about another way our lives are influenced and impacted by technology. In particular, she started to write about the human body and prosthetics, stuff that she’d been meaning to write for years, but never had the time.

In this episode, Britt shares in her own words her experience of wearing prosthetic arms her whole life, her decision to stop wearing one during graduate school and how our built environment is often inaccessible.

[Music fades]

Britt H. Young: I grew up in South Florida. South Florida is… or, at least, my South Florida — there are infinitely many South Floridas — but my South Florida was a very normative space that was very difficult to be not able-bodied.

As an infant, I was wearing a prosthesis as soon as possible. I’m not quite sure what the set of theories are behind this, but the idea that you are missing a limb is a little bit like believing in the kinds of structures that should be put in place for a child to learn a second language: Start them as young as possible — it’ll make the brain more flexible, something like that. The belief was that you would get started on using an adaptive device right away and that would be easiest for you, rather than learning to adapt to your body the way that it is, rather than learning about how to navigate the world with the body you have.

I was among the youngest cohort to be fitted with a myoelectric prosthesis. A myoelectric arm is a battery-powered prosthetic that uses sensors inside of the socket to receive signals to open and close. I was fitted for this, I believe, at 6 months.

I wore a myoelectric most of the time until high school. It was in school when I realized, “Actually, this doesn’t really make a lot of sense. This thing is heavy. It takes a really long time to charge. When was the last time it actually helped me do anything? Never. It mostly makes weird clicking noises, which actually brings me more attention than less attention. And I mostly don’t use it for things. So, I’m just going to switch to using a passive.”

It has always been encumbering, and yet, it’s like a pair of shoes, where you’re like, “Well, for a brief moment, if I’m going to take out the trash, maybe I’ll just run out really quick and run back and hope I don’t step on a nail. But if you’re going out, like you’re putting on all your clothes and you’re putting on makeup, and you’re really getting ready, you’re definitely going to get your arm on.

I had a style of prosthetic arm where putting it on was never the same twice. There’s a silicone lining, they call it a liner, and you roll that over your stump, and it has a little pin, screw at the end, and then that pin clicks inside the socket, so it holds you in. And every single time you put it on is not exactly the same. Maybe the pin is a little bit more to the right or a little bit more to the left. And there are some days when you just cannot get it on right.

I would never ever go to school — elementary, middle, high — without wearing an arm. And yet, I went to small enough schools that everybody knew I was born missing my left arm. Everybody knew this. And many of them had seen me at home without it. And yet, to the general school population, they had not, and it was still conceived of or talked about to me as a major distraction or a potential to bring a lot of unwanted attention to me.

As soon as I came home, I would take it off immediately. And in that way, I was spending countless hours practicing being in my body and learning how to do things my own way. Like, I got a soda bottle and asked, “How am I going to open it?” Figuring out how to sort of brace it against myself and twist it with my right hand or hold it between my thighs, things like that.

There was just a lot of time spent practicing doing things with the prosthesis, which was always conceived of as imitating two-handed people. And yet, it was never quite that anyway. It was always some sort of awkward compromise.

[Music: “Spark” by Blue Dot Sessions]

It was, I think, in that time when I was actually practicing using my body, that I learned I didn’t need the prosthesis or that the prosthesis was extra encumbering.

I moved here 10 years ago now, before I even started grad school, and I remember just going for a walk in the neighborhood, and I saw a runner who was missing their arm, a lot like me. They were just going for a run.

I used to run track in high school, and I would think, “Oh, God, I have to wear my prosthesis,” even though it was a huge distraction. You’re super sweaty in South Florida, and it’s going to fall off. And so, I wouldn’t run with it. And yet, people were pretty weird about it. And I didn’t want to be the inspiring disabled person at the track — people were going to root for me because they saw that I was missing a limb. So, it was really powerful to see this person who’s going for a run in Berkeley without their arm.

The geography department at Berkeley, it sounds cliché to say it was a safe space, but it really felt like a welcoming space, and it really felt like a good space to be myself. It’s an accessible space. It’s a queer-positive space.

I started to, when I was in the office, just take off the prosthesis and sort of go for a walk in the department and not wear it. And I noticed that when I did that, nobody would stare at me.

It’s a really fantastic place. Years ago, I got the support of someone in the department who was the building manager to change the water fountains to be the automatic bottle refill type. I told the guy, Dan, at the time, “This would be really helpful for me. I feel like I’m sort of maneuvering my hips in a certain way to touch the button and refill at the same time.” And he’s like, “We’re going to change all of these.” So, I think the whole building has the bottle refill water things now.

It has been really interesting now going without a prosthesis and experiencing the world in a totally different way and seeing the sort of things that are frustrating designs. But not just frustrating designs and inaccessible designs and hostile designs in the world just for disabled people or just for people with my body geometry, but for anybody.

I’m a lot more in tune to bathrooms and how so many bathrooms have these sinks where you have to push the button to get the water to come out, and then you have to rush to get your hands underneath the water as it comes out before the timer stops. Nobody likes those things. And those things are especially inaccessible to somebody like me, and then even more inaccessible if you’re someone using a wheelchair. You’re much lower and you kind of have to prop yourself up and press that button and then try to wash your hands as quickly as possible. Like, why do we have these things?

Another thing that I’ve noticed is there are these types of hand dryers that will only activate when you put both hands underneath it. I’m always, like, putting my hand there, and it’s like, nope, nope, nope. And then I lift up my leg, and then it will work.

I’m writing a book on technology and the body as it relates to disability and prosthetics. It’s a really wide-ranging book that explores a lot of these themes for anybody.

What so much of the book is going to be about is the way that a lot of body technologies, like wearables, are presented as forms of life enhancement that’ll make life easier and more accessible, when, in fact, the history of disability devices, accessibility devices and prosthetics tells us that, in fact, this is something that we should be quite wary of, that these are new forms of policing and exclusion, especially if they become de facto requirements in the same way that cell phones are now seemingly a requirement for your citizenship. You cannot participate in this world without a smartphone.

I used a U-Haul to move recently, and I had to return it after hours, and I had to log in on my phone and answer a bunch of questions and submit photos. And it’s like, what if I didn’t have a smartphone? I’m especially in tune now to the ways that the built environment makes it impossible to participate in society for a lot of people.

I’m really approaching the world in a lot more theoretical and thoughtful way, and I think that is making me a lot more thoughtful critic of design.

I always have to say that I’m not, like, an anti-prosthesis purist or something like that. I think the fundamental design of prostheses assumes the need for you to appear like an able-bodied person, and that severely hinders the potential of the design. If you are more interested, as a designer of prosthetics, in actually allowing disabled people to achieve the very specific tasks that they want to achieve, then the design of that thing would be quite unique, and it might not look like a human hand at all.

I think that the vast majority of prosthetics are far less useful and helpful than they really could be. I think that they’re far more interested in reproducing the human body and also being an extremely expensive, inaccessible, non-repairable device.

[Music: “Calisson” by Blue Dot Sessions]

I think a really good model is already out there. There are several different upper body prosthetic devices, and one of them is called an activity device or an activity prosthesis. An activity prosthesis is a forearm, or I call this part of the arm the length, so it depends on where your limb stops — you need to have length to get out to the full length where it would be comfortable for you to, like, do a pushup with your other hand or hold open a door — you need that length.

First, there’s the totally custom socket and the forearm or the upper arm length portion. And then, at the end, there’s a device that’s swappable. And that device is completely specific to the activity that you want to do.

There’s kind of one company (TRS Prosthetics) that sells these devices. It’s sort of a shame, there should be a little bit more competition here, especially with how cheap it has become to 3D print things. But there’s this one company that makes the vast majority of these, and they focus on leisure, sports, hobbies. You can have an attachment for yoga, rock climbing, fishing, volleyball, things like that.

As a result, the designs of these things are extremely specific to the activity, and they don’t look like human hands. A lot of them look like Lego hands, like Lego person hands, little clamps. But I mean, the yoga one looks like a mushroom cap. It’s squishy, it’s curved, and you can put your body weight on it. I think they call it the tumbler. It’s a great shape.

But there’s also a prosthetics firm in the UK (Koalaa) that makes a soft prosthesis, which I find so genius. There needs to be so much more of this. It is a, like, Velcro-wrapping fabric prosthesis with a magnetic end that allows you to swap attachments.

And in this way, it’s a lot more like a shoe. Like, why would a socket be rigid? We have squishy bodies. We put our feet into a squishy object, and then we tie it tight. So, this is a wrap, and you wrap it around — it’s especially for children because it’s a lot more comfortable to crawl around in and play with. And I find this genius. It doesn’t look like a traditional prosthesis at all. And they’re totally uninterested in perpetuating the trend to just reproduce the human hand.

[Music: “Pili Piper” by Blue Dot Sessions]

It has required me to spend a lot of time writing to realize that so much of my work is around really material experience. Like, really focusing on being in your body the way that it is and interacting with the world the way that it is, the way that you come to meet it.

I didn’t used to talk like this until I did a lot of the writing about what it is that makes these sorts of technologies really limiting. And I had to sit and think and write to get to this point of thinking in a very concrete and material way.

Anne Brice: Britt is graduating on May 15 with a Ph.D. from the Department of Geography. You can read Britt’s writing, listen to other interviews and read reviews of her work on her website at britthyoung.com/.

I’m Anne Brice, and this is Berkeley Voices, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at UC Berkeley. If you enjoy Berkeley Voices, tell a friend about us and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. And you can follow us wherever you get your podcasts.

We also have another show, Berkeley Talks, which features lectures and conversations at Berkeley. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.