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Using Anthropology to Research the Use of Prosthetic Legs in Uganda

April 23, 2020
Center for Urban and Regional Studies
Bookshelf with various supplies such as folded up foam.

Prosthetic Workshop Supply Room in Kampala, Uganda. (Photo by Vaia Sigounas)

After graduating from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Vaia Sigounas trained as a surgeon and became increasingly aware of the limitations and possibilities of biomedicine. She came back to UNC to get a doctorate in medical anthropology because she wanted to understand how social approaches to health issues can influence biomedicine.

Sigounas now studies the development, distribution and use of prosthetic legs by people who have lost their limbs in Uganda.

“Historically, people who have undergone an amputation and live in Uganda might improve their mobility by modifying donated assistive devices such as wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs, or by designing and building their own devices using found materials,” Sigounas noted.

“Basically, I study how people who have undergone life-changing traumas like amputation reconstruct their identities and social relationships using technology.”

In designing devices for this new market, engineers and device makers in the United States frequently modify standard prototypes by using cheaper materials and simplifying product design to make the final product easier to build, use and repair.

“But the intended recipients value more than simplicity and cost when it comes to assistive devices. They are using assistive technology to help them develop new social relationships, engage in paid work, function as care-givers and address the negative impact of disability on their identities.”

Vaia in blue shirt with tile background
Vaia Sigounas

Sigounas’s research, which was recently awarded a CURS-supported National Science Foundation Dissertation Grant, looks into how people in Uganda accept, reject or alter assistive devices, made in the U.S. and Canada, to better meet their needs for self-efficacy, improved economic prospects and social relationships.

“I’m also interested in how culture and social relationships influence the ways people living in under-studied parts of the world use technology to address disability,” Sigounas said. “Along those lines, this project is determining how the inequitable distribution of technological innovations in the form of assistive devices influences how individuals and communities in high and low-resource settings perceive ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’ bodies, navigate health systems and reorganize social relationships.”

“Young Ugandans are currently creating exciting scientific and technological innovations of, and from, Africa,” explained Sigounas. At the same time, Uganda has been a frequent recipient of international humanitarian aid in recent years. In the mid-1980’s and 1990’s, the Ugandan government was extraordinarily open to receiving international humanitarian aid to rebuild the country after the devastation of colonialism, civil wars, the dictatorship of Idi Amin, the bush wars and the AIDS epidemic.

“However, Ugandans didn’t just take up foreign ideas or use foreign devices the way [engineers] intended for them to be used – they transformed them to suit their own specific circumstances. So, for someone studying technological inventiveness and transformation, Uganda is a pretty compelling country.”

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