2-The Living Cyborg: Equipment as Part of the Lived Body in Children and the Physically Disabled

2-The Living Cyborg: Equipment as Part of the Lived Body in Children and the Physically Disabled

2-The Living Cyborg: Equipment as Part of the Lived Body in Children and the Physically Disabled

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Catherine Guilbeau

The purpose of this research project was to explore the use of equipment as part of the human body in both children and the physically disabled. It is suggested that equipment is integrated into the lived body in a way that the person’s functionality resembles that of a cyborg, a fictional human whose physical abilities are enhanced by mechanical elements built into the body. A hermeneutic phenomenological method was utilized to comparatively consider the meaning of adopting equipment as part of the lived bodies of young children and physically disabled adults.

Theoretical Background

Understanding the Lived Body

The human body—though it is typically studied separately as a machine operated by the mind—was approached, in this project, on the assumption that it is an integral and inseparable part of the human person who lives as an embodied being-in-the-world. Rather than adopting Cartesian assumptions that divide the person into a two-part being, mind and body, a phenomenological understanding recognizes the human being as “a unity of body and mind, behavior and situation” (Moss, 1989, p. 63). As embodied beings, humans also exist in an experiential world that is formed by one’s “bodily attitude and activity toward its world” (Moss, 1989, p. 76). The lived body and the experiential world are intimately intertwined for the lived body, experienced as a body that is ‘mine,’ is the basis from which a person’s experience is understood as one’s own (Straus, 1966/1980). The lived body organizes one’s world, for example, when the body is tired it becomes difficult to focus on a lecturing professor, to attentively drive through traffic, or to write a coherent paper. If, on the other hand, a person has enjoyed a good night’s sleep, these situations are experienced differently because the person is present to and attends to other aspects of their world in an altered manner. This difference in experiential worlds illustrates the phenomenological understanding that the human person experiences oneself as seamlessly in the world, rather than as a disembodied mind utilizing the mechanical body to interact with the world. It is due to this interconnectedness that one’s experiential world is both shaping and being shaped by the person, for they continually influence each other and construct one’s being-in-the-world. The human body, therefore, is taken up as a lived body that exists as the basis from which and through which an individual experiences their world.

In taking up the human body as a lived body, an individual’s actions are also understood phenomenologically as part of one’s being-in-the-world. Since the body is something one first lives and acts through, rather than knows, it is through bodily movement that one relates to and exists in a personal world (Moss, 1989). As stated by Moss (1989), the lived body is “essentially the potential for certain actions,” and one’s actions are therefore a way of existing in the world rather than merely mechanical movements, detached from experience (p. 75). Such actions can be understood phenomenologically as “lived movement[s],” for they express a “particular mode of being” that is taken for granted in the everydayness of one’s lived world (Straus, 1966, p. 49). Rather than existing as mechanical beings whose actions can be meticulously calculated prior to entering into the world, humans are always and already immersed in the world. One’s experience of this immersion is comprehensible in studying lived movement, for action and experience are inseparable parts of one’s being-in-the-world. Therefore, by recognizing the body as a lived body that enacts lived movement, human existence can be understood as a particular mode of being that encompasses one’s body, mind, and experience.

Studying the human body as a lived body, also entails understanding behavior within space—that is, lived space rather than merely physical or geometrical space. From a hermeneutic phenomenological perspective, space is not experienced as neutral, but instead as a “space of human action lying all about us” which an individual relates to through the body (Moss, 1989, p. 74). The action spaces, or dimensions of lived space, are “functional and meaningful” only in relation to the human person as a “biological and psychological being” who brings a specific characterization to these dimensions (Moss, 1989, p. 74). Space is only meaningfully organized in light of human activities and the targets of actions, such that particular dimensions are more salient than others, rather than all dimensions being attended to equally. Hence, a person’s understanding of their embodied self is “intrinsically bound up with orientation in space, the direct experience of one’s own body, and the potential movement of the body in space” (Moss, 1989, p. 74). It is in recognizing the human body as a lived body that one’s actions are understood within lived space, where situations and attitudes shape one’s mode of being.

Understanding Things

The things of the human world are typically defined as “that which can be touched, reached, or seen” (Heidegger, 1967, p. 5). The current study, however, takes a Heideggerian perspective which deems such a definition is a narrow understanding of things, for it does not adequately answer the question, “As what do the things show themselves to us?” (Heidegger, 1967, p. 32). In other words, a physical description of things does not articulate how a thing meaningfully exists as part of one’s experiential world. Just as movement and space are unintelligible outside of a human mode of being-in-the-world, things are “clothed in human characteristics” and are not comprehensible as merely physical entities (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p. 49). Rather, things are “inwardly taken up by us, reconstituted and lived by us” as part of “a world whose fundamental structures we carry with ourselves and of which this thing is just one of several possible concretions” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2012, p. 341). Not only are things taken up by humans, but they also confront or call out to individuals through a particular gesture that is comprehensible within the person’s attitude and mode of being (Straus, 1966/1980). While on the one hand, the thing is taken up by the individual, it is at the same time gathering “sensory, spatial, social, and temporal meaning around it,” making it sensible to humans as beings-in-the-world (Simms, 2008, p. 83). Hence, in the same way as the embodied individual is orientated in a particular way, a thing is not first identified and understood intellectually by its physical properties, but is instead swept up in one’s taken for granted way of being.

In addition to understanding things as part of one’s personal mode of being, it is also integral to this project to recognize things in relation to the lived body. As embodied beings in a personal world of things, the unity of the human body can only be grasped in the unity of a thing (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2012). According to Merleau-Ponty (1945/2012), the physical body is “merely an obscure mass” without the presence of things, for it is only “when it moves itself toward a thing, insofar as it projects itself intentionally toward the outside,” that it can be comprehended as a united and lived body (p. 336). Consequently, a thing and the body are only understandable in relation to each other and within the structure of one’s being-in-the-world. The gesture or voice of a thing can only be rendered intelligible through the sensory language of the human body, for it is through the body that the world is organized and arranged (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2012). As embodied beings, “the thing is constituted in the hold [one’s] body has upon it,” and one’s relation to things is therefore an intimate communion in which things and the lived body hold each other in meaningful existence (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2012, p. 334). Through this communion, things provoke, symbolize, or recall specific ways of acting or being and consequently color a person’s meaningful orientation within the world (Merleau-Ponty, 1964). Therefore, it is only by incorporating one’s lived body and things into an individual’s way of being-in-the-world that either entity is meaningfully understood.

Current Study


The current study utilized a hermeneutic phenomenological approach to consider ways in which the use of equipment by physically disabled adults and children can be understood in paralleling ways. For the purposes of this project, the term equipment is used to collectively refer to adaptive items, including wheelchairs, standing lifts, and adaptive utensils, that are used to help achieve certain physical abilities such as walking, standing, and eating. Data for this project included images and videos of this equipment from the websites of medical equipment companies, home health agencies, and nursing homes, as well as websites selling infant and toddler products. Images and videos were selected only if they depicted equipment used to perform a task or action the body was unable to complete. Data for both populations were collected separately and the use of equipment was also considered separately before comparisons between the groups were made.

This study utilized a hermeneutic phenomenological lens, as outlined by van Manen (2014), to ask, “what does it mean for the physically disabled and the child to use this equipment?” According to van Manen (2014), phenomenology is a way of encountering things and events of the world with wonder. This approach is “a method of questioning” that asks about the “lived meaning” of the taken for granted phenomena of everyday life (van Manen, 2014, p.27). A hermeneutic relationship is also included in this method, for it assumes that an individual’s personal perspective, beliefs, and opinions influence the way in which a phenomenon is seen and consequently, shapes the way it is meaningfully understood or taken up. The current study followed the assumptions of the hermeneutic phenomenological approach by recognizing the use of equipment as a taken for granted phenomenon that, upon closer consideration, is meaningfully integrated into the experiential world of both physically disabled adults and children.

Integration of things into the lived body

The current project utilized a phenomenological understanding of the human body as a lived body and things as meaningful gestures—both understood as aspects of a way of being—to understand the integration of things into not only a personal world but, even more so, into an individual’s lived body. Such an integration is possible, and at times necessary, when the physical body is incapable of achieving particular actions, movements, or behaviors that are demanded by the communal world. The communal and public world today is designed for physically abled adults and as such, requires particular physical abilities that young children and physically disabled adults often do not possess. Consequently, the use of things to help achieve these physical abilities such as walking, standing, and eating, for example, is necessary for both populations. This adaptive equipment (including wheelchairs, standing lifts, and adaptive utensils) is not simply used by the individual, but by understanding the physical body as a lived body and equipment as things that gather meaning, the equipment is integrated into the body. An individual’s conception of the body is not confined to its physical limits, but is instead “built up around those parts of the body that have a special relation to the world of things and of other people” (Moss, 1989, p. 68). Further, this extended and lived body is never anonymously taken up, but rather is understood as ‘mine,’ and involves “a kind of intimacy exceeding by far the mineness of property that one might dispose of” (Moss, 1989, p. 76). This possessive quality of one’s lived body is inherent for embodied beings, for one’s experiential world, which includes the body, is a unique and personal way of being-in-the-world.

However, when the physiological body does not function properly, “one’s own body is alienated from oneself,” and such depersonalization or disownment also occurs in the “functionally related regions of the world” (Moss, 1989, p.77). As embodied beings, physical disablement is not hurt the physical body and leave the mind untouched, but rather, it goes “hand in hand with damage to the self, resulting from dislocation from a personal life, and the subsequent doubt and loss of autonomy” (Madjar & Walton, 1999, p.61). This project therefore seeks to understand the way in which equipment is adopted as part of the lived body, especially as such an adoption opens or reopens particular modes of being that are otherwise impossible due to limitations of the physical body.



Consideration of the equipment’s function within each population revealed a common use of the items to perform a particular function the physical body was unable to carry out. Included in this data were pieces of equipment used to carry and move individuals (figure 1)—namely, a baby carrier for young children and the sling of a sling lift for the physically disabled. In both cases, the equipment shapes and holds the individual such that the body is cradled.

 fig1-a  fig1-b
Figure 1: Carry and Move

Additionally, equipment for standing upright (figure 2) included a baby bouncer or stander and a standing lift that propped the upper half of the body, allowing the legs to fall downwards into a standing position.

 fig2-a fig2-b
Figure 2: Standing Upright

The ability to walk was aided by numerous pieces of equipment (figure 3), including walkers, strollers or wheelchairs, and moving standers. The variation in equipment for walking pointed to the specific bodily function the equipment aimed to provide, that is balance, speed of locomotion, or an upright posture.

 http://www.john-crane.co.uk/upload/ecomproduct/baby-walker-with-abc-blocks/13-12-12_12-59-57_baby_walker_with_abc_blocks_lifestyle.jpg http://www.soa.md/system/contentimages/13/original/services_durableequipfc6b.jpg?1313074549
 https://mountainbuggy.com/var%2Fmb%2Fstorage%2Fimages%2Ffiles%2Fimages%2Fproducts%2Fbuggies%2Fnano%2Fnano-travel-stroller-with-kid-nautical%2F187654-1-eng-RW%2Fnano-travel-stroller-with-kid-nautical.jpg  http://electricwheelchairsdir.com/img-big/98.jpg
Figure 3: Walking

Further similarities within the data included feeding oneself (figure 4), as both populations utilize utensils (whether larger or differing in shape compared to typical utensils), to complement the limitations of the physical body.

   word-image http://www.rehabmart.com/imagesfromrd/NC-65590%20Good%20Grips%20Souper%20Spoon_2_Eating%20Utensils%20and%20Accessories.jpg
http://www.femail.com.au/graphics/aventmealtimerange1.jpg https://myscilife.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/sam_4914.jpg?w=632&h=446
Figure 3: Feeding

Lastly, the use of a toilet, and particularly the ability to stand and sit on the toilet (figure 5), requires similar pieces of equipment for both children and the physically disabled. Both populations utilized various safety bars or steps, a particular seat, or an entirely separate toilet that fulfilled required height and safety measure to open up the ability to use a toilet.

http://www.weeebaby.com/oc-content/uploads/156/23463.jpg http://handhplumbingaz.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Handicap-Bathroom-Rails-Bars-Phoenix-Glendale-AZ.jpg
https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQ9JA5SIJ_OJC6tAuUHKVH-vnlv0BjNdqGzx2GD39JmUvcxnbwr8g http://www.handicappedequipment.org/wp-content/uploads/raised-toilet-with-rails.jpg
https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com/shopping?q=tbn:ANd9GcTczIShUJRUHRBnnMRI4W91X1mUdPQtES7H2_E4qY4kduNOEQkJvSw97bN56eGbYgXX2l55G-Cl&usqp=CAE http://www.handicappedequipment.org/wp-content/uploads/commode-arm-handles.jpg
Figure 5: Toilet Use

Visually and functionally, the pieces of equipment for both populations were strikingly similar, for the physical body was mimicked, complemented, or extended through the equipment which functioned in place of the physical body.

By adopting the phenomenological understanding of the lived body as extending beyond the physical body, this equipment can be understood as part of the lived body. The lived body, as discussed previously, is meaningful only in its interaction with, and movement among or towards, things within lived space. Things or, in this study, equipment, are understood in light of human interaction. Among these populations, equipment is used to aid in particular physical tasks and therefore meaningfully gathers the functions of particular human limbs or functions. The interplay between the embodied individual’s interaction with the equipment and the equipment’s gathering function, can be understood as a uniting of body and things. This unity and integration of equipment is comparable to the image of the cyborg, for in both the lived body is extended through incorporated equipment. Therefore, in both young children and the physically disabled, equipment becomes part of the lived body to open or reopen particular ways of being-in-the-world.


While the physical integration of equipment by both populations mirror one another, the data raises questions of potential differences in the gesture, calling out, and meaning of such equipment. Though for both young children and the physically disabled, the gesture seems to be understood as an opening up of possibilities through movement and, therefore, an expansion of one’s lived space, the photographs suggest a difference in the meaning of such engagement.

For young children, the use of equipment was often pictured, as seen in Appendix B, in relation to adults. Such examples included children standing on stools next to their mothers while they both cook or prepare food, a child sitting on a children’s toilet next to a mother who is sitting on an adult toilet, and children independently sitting and eating in high chairs that look remarkably similar to the chairs of adults. Some data involved children seemingly acting like adults, such as an image of a bespectacled child reading the ‘baby news’ while sitting on a toilet. One of the most striking images, visually resembled the monkey to man evolutionary stages (figure 6) and seemed to suggest that the infant and child need the help of the stroller to keep up with the adult with whom they are not yet equal.

http://qltyctrl.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Monkey-Man.jpg http://cdn.designrulz.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/double-helix-4.jpg
Figure 6

While these photos are clearly staged, they do raise questions about the aim of children’s, by suggesting that children use equipment in order to embody the world as an adult. The implication is that children use equipment—such as high chairs, stools, training toilets, and strollers—as opportunities to ‘try on’ the unknown, unexplored, and new world of adults. The child as a living cyborg, according to the implications of the data, is an orientation towards the future and a promise of actions the child will be able to accomplish as an adult. This equipment invites the child to begin exploring a world in which the physical body is fully grown and functioning. In other words, the equipment is pictured as a temporary tool the child must adopt as part of their lived body until the physically mature body can take over and exist in an adult way of being. It is the suggestion of the data that equipment makes possible a world of opportunity, promise, and hope, and serves as a pathway towards a future of existing as an adult.

In contrast, data for the physically disabled seems to imply the use of equipment as a way of compensating either for abilities the adult previously embodied or will never embody. The gesture of the equipment is suggested to be oriented towards the past, rather than the future as with children. Pictures of this population suggest that use of the equipment is a demand, rather than a promise or invitation, to make possible, actions and movements that are otherwise unattainable for the individual. The gesture of equipment for this population, as implied by the data, is one of dependent and inadequacy—quite contrary to the gesture towards children. It is suggested that the equipment calls the individual into the past, towards childhood, and back to a child-like reliance on equipment. The integration of such equipment, therefore suggests the physically disabled as a living cyborg whose orientation towards the equipment is one of despair and dependence.


Data picturing both a child’s and a physically disabled person’s use of equipment as part of the lived body, suggested differences in the gestures of and orientation towards the equipment between the two populations. It is implied that a child integrates the equipment with hope and promise, while a physically disabled person integrates with despair. Though such a distinction between hope and despair is suggested, I propose that the hopeful promise lived by the child can also be experienced by the physically disabled when the integration of equipment is fully and permanently accepted. Such integration is reached when the distinction between the ‘not me’ of equipment and the ‘me’ of the physical body is eliminated. When being a living cyborg becomes a promise of what one will be able to do with the help of the equipment, rather than what one can no longer or could never do without the equipment. As stated by Moss (1989), one’s “body is at the same time, the means by which [the person] [is] free and the outside limit of [one’s] freedom” (p. 81). Hence, through adopting equipment as part of an orientation towards the future, and one’s lived space is broadened through an opening up of possible movements and actions. This growing into one’s self, resembles that of the young child who finds hope and promise in looking to the future and towards the world they will one day inhabit as a way of being. It is therefore, by accepting equipment as part of one’s embodied self and a being-in-the-world, that the physically disabled can look towards the future and experience the freedom and hope of a young child, as a living cyborg.


Madjar, I., & Walton, J. (Eds.). (1999). Nursing and the experience of illness: Phenomenology in practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2012). Phenomenology of perception. (D.A. Landes, Trans.). New York: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). The World of Perception (O. Davis, Trans.), London and New York: Routledge.

Moss, D. (1989). Body, brain, and world: body image and the psychology of the body. In R. Valle & S. Halling (Eds.). Existential phenomenological perspectives in psychology. NY Plenum Press.

Simms, E. (2008). “The child in the world of things” in The Child in the World, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Straus, E. (1966). Phenomenological psychology. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Straus, E. (1966/1980) “The Upright Posture” in Phenomenological Psychology. New York: Garland Publishing.

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