Disability and design research project wins APEX award

Stuart Murray

Professor Stuart Murray has received an APEX award to lead a project looking into the relationship between disability, design and the use of prosthetics.

Hands are one of the most frequently used parts of the human body, but they are also one of the most expressive. They are by turns both functional and performative, and as such we think of them in terms of both utility and symbolism. We call the first finger 'trigger' or 'index' (meaning 'pointing') and name the fourth finger for the ring it often wears. But we also speak of being high-handed, empty-handed, short-handed, heavy-handed, and even-handed, to name but a few. Prosthetic hands, by contrast, tend to be thought of on a purely functional level: how practical are they to use? How well do they accomplish what the absent limb cannot?

Now a research project led by Professor Murray (Professor of Contemporary Literatures and Film) will aim to challenge this way of thinking. Engineering the Imagination, which is a collaboration between the School of English and the School of Mechanical Engineering, has received one of only six of the newly-launched APEX awards, which support unconventional interdisciplinary research that will be of benefit to wider society. The awards are jointly granted by the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society, with support from the Leverhulme Trust.

Working with students, prostheses users and academic collaborators, the project will examine the existing process for designing prosthetics with the aim of working towards better provision of assistive technologies for those with disabilities. By thinking of issues such as colour, texture and shape, and by always stressing the constructed nature of prosthetics, the researchers will design and make a prosthetic hand that is not overtly functional but instead accentuates empathy and the expression of emotion.

Professor Murray said of the project, "The APEX award offers a fantastic opportunity to pursue curiosity-driven and open cross-disciplinary research. We hope that Engineering the Imagination can challenge the boundaries of engineering prosthesis design, and that our final constructed hand will shed new light on understanding the relationship between disability and assistive technologies, as well as the way emotions are communicated."