Our History Note for the December print issue and online news centers on Minnesota’s longtime leadership in the prosthetics industry. It’s a manufacturing field that began in the state’s early days, when lumbering, agriculture and grain milling accidents and injuries drove part of a need for artificial limbs. War injuries and illnesses also drove the need.
You may have visited a Minnesota museum at one point and seen a wooden leg or arm that was a very early form of accommodation. Or maybe, like me, you grew up knowing someone who needed a prosthetic device to walk around or to do daily tasks. I look back and note how much more obvious and visible those legs and arms and hands were years ago. We children knew an adult with a device where a hand once was, and we marveled at how matter-of-factly he did things.
Much of the article’s focus was on the Trautman family, and their longtime Minneapolis manufacturing company, the Minnesota Artificial Limb Company. The company founder had a Christmastime tradition of giving a free wheelchair to someone considered “worthy” and “deserving.”
While the gift of a wheelchair was certainly made each year with kindness, it is hard to think of people being judged as “worthy” of a needed accommodation. Those who did not get the gift went without.
Many of us know that accommodations can be life changing. So how was one person’s need deemed more worthy than someone else’s need? That’s what gave me pause while writing the article.
I also thought about those reality TV shows with home makeovers, where the family member using a chair or scooter had life changed with a renovated house or even a new dwelling. Here’s the plucky, smiling child who has had to navigate a rusty old wheelchair ramp, coming home to a new accessible dwelling! Hooray!
Except we don’t see the part where the family loses the home to high property taxes, or where the quickly built improvements fall apart.
Reality television, indeed.
It’s also the kind of news coverage we see at this time of year in general as we are urged to donate to toy drives and gift collections for elders, and to fill a bag for the local food shelf. Many of those in need, including people with disabilities, are portrayed as being brave and noble and worthy of gifts.
Yet the “reality” is that needs are year-round. The reality is that people who struggle may be wanting to meet their needs while also not drawing attention to themselves as they labor day to day to survive. The reality is that with charity and giving can also come ambivalence about accepting help, even if that help is badly needed.
Attitudes have certainly changed over time. More people with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities are concerned about not having a disabled person seen as some kind of object of pity.
We journalists have to balance legitimate and sometimes overwhelming need with the need to depict people in any difficult situation with the respect and dignity they deserve. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail.
We have to remind ourselves that everyone is worthy of living their best life.