when you lose a leg. the power of image.

May 4, 2010

in communication

this is an old ad for amnesty international (2008). i’ve never seen it—you?

look at the free leg. it’s covered with bruises, a scar. the toenails need to be cut. that’s a kid.

now pop it open so you can really read the text (i’ll wait).

when you lose a leg, you lose basketball games, running away from girls, cartwheeling down the beach. there’s something on that cast that each of us can relate to. and fear losing.

that’s effective. don’t you think?


note: i came across this image on jay parkinson’s blog. he also writes the futurewell, which i’ve written about before.

Leave a Comment

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Harnett May 4, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Hi Fran,

I have to respectfully disagree.

Don’t get me wrong. No one wants to lose a leg or an arm or experience a spinal cord injury. But disability and inability do not have to equate.

When I specifically think of your opening line, “when you lose a leg… ,” I think of my friends, Paul Martin (@IMPaulMartin), Sandy Dukat and Kirk Bauer, to name only a few.

Paul Martin is a below-knee amputee (BK) who’s run 10 Iron Man triathalons, won several Paralympic medals in cycling at two Paralympic Games, plays ice hockey, is about to run the 56-mile Comrades ultramarathon and does so much more. He’s also written a book called, One Man’s Leg, as well as a new book that’s coming to print called, Drinking From My Leg.

Sandy Dukat lost her leg at age 4 to a congenital disability. This amputation allowed her to wear a full-leg prosthetic. She didn’t compete in paralympic sport until she was out of college. Until then, Sandy played basketball, swam and high jumped with other teammates in elementary school and high school. Sandy, too, won multiple Paralympic medals in downhill skiing at two Paralympic Games.

Kirk Bauer is the president of Disabled Sports / USA and an above-knee amputee (AK) due to injuries sustained during the Vietnam War. We recently completed the Bataan Memorial Death March marathon together in White Sands, NM along with 28 Wounded Warriors — 26 of whom were amputees. Kirk skis, bikes in centuries, water skis, etc. He’s going to hike Kilimanjaro this year.

You may think these people are exceptions, but they are not. They are people who happen to have disabilities. They also happen to be better athletes than most. By the way, that includes all of you two-legged geeks as Paul Martin calls us.

There are thousands of ordinary people – adults and children – with disabilities who play basketball, run away from girls and cartwheel down the beach. You simply have to look and you’ll see them for the people they are and not the image you place on them.

The only thing preventing them from running and jumping and cartwheeling sometimes are those very images you create for them. Imagine the possibilities if you replaced the “cast” in your featured photo with a cool prosthetic leg.

I’m sorry if I sound defensive, but it’s time we placed the image of possibilities on people with disabilities…just as we would like that same image placed on us.

Best wishes,


Paul Smith May 4, 2010 at 1:40 pm

I think as far as an advertisement, it’s effective to me. I did not see it as a method to gather pity for those who are disabled, or to view them as less. I saw it as the brutal result of war.
The message to me is that this child was subjected to a situation of loss that was unnecessary. The ad is attempting to focus on the idea of loss, not disability. And if one can relate to this idea of loss, perhaps they should rethink their position on condoning war.
That’s my take.


fran May 4, 2010 at 3:32 pm

carol, you’re right. i was looking at this image and thinking more about how images can create a stronger, quicker emotional connection than text.

like paul, i was thinking of this from the angle of loss — that the image and text emotionally connect with people and their fear of loss of the things they love, and that this fear can emotionally connect them to make changes or take action. in this case, it’s about landmines. in health, it could be about taking a walk or cutting back on fatty processed meats.

stepping back, i see your point. there are very few limitations for people with these disabilities, as oscar pistorius makes clear. i’m curious – do you think it’s different where landmines exist? it’s not something i’ve read enough about to know how much kids hurt by landmines overcome, get prosthetics, and so on.

thanks for respectfully disagreeing!



Carol Harnett May 4, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Thanks for appreciating and considering my comments, Fran.

Here’s how I see it. With leadership, comes responsibility. And we never want to make an emotional connection using an image, story or ad that perpetuates misinformation about or discrimination for another group.

I’m not a marketer but, perhaps, a similar emotional connection could have been made with an image that shows the same child missing a limb and standing on one leg (without the Photoshopped image of the missing leg with its disability misperceptions) and a soccer ball on his hip. The audience can fill in the rest for themselves.

War is a terrible thing and its consequences impact many people negatively — heroes, villains and innocent bystanders. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bring back 16 soldiers with disabilities for every soldier killed in the conflict. The sooner we can challenge the stereotypes for the negative connotations of disability, the better.

People with disabilities living in some other less-enlightened areas of the world suffer even greater misunderstanding and treatment. Disabled Sports/USA invited survivors of landmines to come to Ski Spectacular several years ago so they could experience the possibilities available to them. There are a number of causes that try to provide wheelchairs, adapted bicycles, prosthetics, etc to people with disabilities in countries with limited viewpoints and understanding.

No one is saying living with a disability is easy. But it does not sequester you in your home or limit your ability to participate in sport and other pleasurable activities. The key to this is your attitude, the attitude of those around you, and the opportunities made available to you.

I extend this same viewpoint toward efforts to engage people in healthier behaviors. Some folks in and around the health and disability industries are targeting some of the easier to see and point out health descriptors, like being overweight or obese. It’s a health risk you can point at. While being overweight and obese is often associated with higher health care costs, the bigger predictor is lack of physical activity. And, as Steven Blair’s well-done research has shown, you can meet the definition of obesity and be fit. These are not mutually exclusive situations.

So while we would no more show an image of an obese person and a mountain of health care bills, so, too, should we think about the other images we perpetuate.

Hope that wasn’t too long.

Thanks so much, Fran, for stimulating this discussion.


fran May 5, 2010 at 8:02 am

carol, i think this goes straight to how difficult it is to pick an image that works. i like your alternative image as one that’s empowering and powerful. and i think both support what i meant to get across – that connecting with people about their dreams and aspirations and their potential inability to achieve them is a powerful driver.

great discussion and debate.



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