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16th February 2016

No limits: how technology levels the playing field for amputee athletes

Taliya Dawkins was born without a left hand but that hasn’t stopped her from embracing gymnastics, acrobatics, swimming and ice-skating. Now eight years old, she joins a growing list of people whose lives are being transformed by prosthetics

Sabrina was 20 weeks pregnant with Taliya when her doctor broke the news. Taliya was suffering from an ‘amniotic amputation’ – a rare birth defect that occurs when fingers or limbs are trapped in fibrous material in utero.  This cuts off the blood supply and prevents growth.

For Sabrina, this was a huge shock. At her 16-week scan, everything seemed fine. Now, just four weeks later, everything had changed.

‘I presumed they’d checked all the physical things at the first scan, so it was a big shock to be suddenly told Taliya didn’t have a left hand,’ she told the Daily Mail newspaper. ‘Initially, it hit me hard because I worried a lot about how it might affect Taliya growing up and the possible impact on her life.’

But, fast-forward 8 years, and her daughter Taliya is a healthy and active girl. Although born with just one hand, she can turn cartwheels like her friends – thanks to a clever new device.

Taliya had her first prosthetic hand fitted when she was just six weeks old. But these devices are not always well suited to complex movements – limiting the child’s scope to participate in sports.

Now scientists and doctors at her local hospital have built a special accessory for Taliya to attach to her prosthetic limb. It is a flat rubber device that can be screwed into her arm, offering her the flexibility she needs to do gymnastics.

‘She’s absolutely over the moon with it. She hasn’t stopped jumping around since we got it,’ Sabrina told her local newspaper in Portsmouth. ‘She has always been very determined but this new prosthetic gives her even more freedom and it’s lovely to see.’

Taliya herself sees the benefits too. ‘I can finally do cartwheels and handstands, which I’ve always struggled with. It makes a huge difference to my balance and I’m so pleased.’

The future looks bright for Taliya as prosthetic technologies become increasingly flexible and strong, allowing an ever wider range of movements.

These days, athletes with prosthetics can skate, ski and snowboard.

And, as D.J. Vanderwerf has shown, losing a leg at an early age need not be a barrier to playing quarterback in American Football.

To understand more about the science behind these technologies – and to watch an amputee dance while wearing a prosthetic limb – watch this TED talk!

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