Prosthetic empathy: on disability, words and models

Alastair Somerville
3 min readAug 8, 2017


Quick post on some ideas about building empathy, technology and disability. I have written before on this subject in Empathy exercises don’t work.

This post is due to Raymond Holt mentioning on Twitter this New York Times article Empathy Gadgets. The article describes the kind of empathy exercise that worried me in the last Medium post.

I mentioned a very good 30 minute documentary A Chair For Neil that was on BBC Radio 4 yesterday. It’s about the desire of a disabled man to get a new wheelchair that could travel on the paths he remembered as a child, to stand up under a tree when it rains, to do more of the things he loved. It’s about how he, with friends and family, successfully funded the purchase of the technologically advanced wheelchair. You can download the programme here.

Both the article and the radio documentary are about prosthetics.

Both are stories about empathy.

Yet I’m not sure the method described in the New York Times can ever work.

Being with people

Medical empathy stories, like the Times’ story, are not about building empathy for some excluded group who are never met by the professionals.

The doctors (in this case) meet people with a range of illnesses and impairments on an hourly basis.

This is not a failure of empathy due to lack of experience of seeing, touching or talking to people with disabilities.

Being with people professionally does not mean you empathise with them.

Inducing their symptoms on your body does not mean you think of them.

It makes you think of you and your professional knowledge. These are the things you know. These are the things you are trained to trust most.

An external device is only proxy for empathy. There needs to be something inside of you for it work effectively.

As a prosthetic, the wheelchair for Neil mattered as he had stories, memories and hopes attached to it.

A momentary experience of impairment induced by some device is too often a failure as it attaches to fear and professional knowledge.

Prosthetic empathy (to use Raymond’s phrase) needs more than a device. It needs inner intent and structures for understanding meaning.

Often, you need more stories to imagine more about the meaning of experiences.

You need words to tell stories

This reminds me of Narrative Medicine.

It’s another approach to training medical staff to be empathetic.

It includes an idea called Deep Reading.

Reading fiction. Reading slowly and making sure you understand the words, the metaphors and the themes.

It’s about how important storytelling is to creating internal structures of empathy.

Fiction is a way of building vocabularies, metaphors and stories.

Deep Reading is a way of training people to be able to listen more effectively, more empathetically to others. It is also about providing the ways of talking and telling that professional training often evades.

We need fiction to be humane.

It patterns your mind. It enables different behaviours. It creates the frameworks for empathy.

We need the words, the stories and the imagination to share emotion and to be empathetic.

We need internal structures to make sense of the external.

Prosthetics for empathy need more than a superficial technology. They need depth of human capacities.

A gadget cannot provide this.

A library can.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX