Do's and Don'ts: Interacting With a Person With a Prosthesis

Do's and Don'ts: Interacting With a Person With a Prosthesis
Image: Moe Zoyari

Nicole Soltys is the Clinical Operations Manager for Prosthetics & Orthotics and is a certified prosthetist. As a prosthetist, she works patients directly in order to choose the best prosthesis for their needs. It is also her responsibility to measure, manufacture and fit the device and help her patients learn to operate/control their new limb.

Echo sat down with Soltys to talk about proper etiquette when addressing or interacting with a person with a disability as well as terminology such as a prosthesis is a noun and prosthetic is an adjective.

How does a person with a prosthetic limb want to be identified?

So, what I was taught in school is to use person-centered language. I wouldn’t label a person as an amputee. I would say that this is a person with an amputation. This is a person with a below the knee amputation or with a below the elbow amputation. Some people are very particular about the language. So, an adult who was born with a limb difference and never had an amputation surgery, they may want to correct people every time they hear that word [amputee], and they want it to be known that they have a limb difference. So, it is really personal to the individual. The other thing we never use is the word stump. We call the remaining part of the limb a residual limb. And so, there are these little terms that we as professionals are very careful to use or not to use, but patients may throw around any word that they want to.

[Handicapped] that’s another word that is controversial too, so we try not to call people handicapped even though there are signs that say handicap parking. What we try to say is that this is a person with a disability.

You mentioned a limb difference, what is that exactly?

So, one of the more common limb differences a child can be born with can be something called a fibular deficiency. It’s also called a longitudinal deficiency of the fibula and what that means is there are two bones in the lower leg the tibia and the fibula and these children are born either missing part of the fibula or the whole thing and they’re usually also missing part of the foot. They are born with no foot or with part of a foot, and we evaluate that patient and determine whether they could wear a prosthesis with their foot sometimes a surgery is performed to remove part of the foot that is remaining if it’s not a foot that can bear weight or if it’s not healthy enough for walking on, then the surgeon might remove the foot so we can fit them with a prosthesis.

Another common limb deficiency a child might be born with is their arm might be missing below the elbow. So right below the elbow, they might have a little bit of their forearm remaining but there’s no hand and no remaining part of the forearm and so we’ll fit them with a prosthesis once they get a little older.

When you started in the field, did you have to confront any stigmas you had about people with disabilities?

Not really stigmas. I was really interested in learning about some of the preferences of how a person with a disability wants to be treated, and I found it really interesting. One of the things that I learned is if you see someone with a disability and they’re struggling with something say they dropped something or they’re wheeling themselves in their wheelchair that you’re really not supposed to just jump in and start pushing them or start helping them. It’s really important to ask and approach the person and offer help or ask would you like me to pick that up for you or would like a push in the wheelchair. You really have to give the person a chance to decline help, so I don’t think I came in with a stigma I just didn’t really realize that there were these considerations of how someone might not want your help. I just assumed that everyone would want to be pushed in their wheelchair so that just made me think twice about how I approach people.

I’ve noticed some people can be uncomfortable around people with this kind of disability. What advice would give to those people?  

I would say try to look past the shape of a person’s body and remember that this is a unique individual who has goals, talents, and their own story.  The individual may change, struggle, and grow through the experience of losing a limb, and they may need to adapt how they get around or how they do things, but they are still the same person at the core.