Material Traces of Disability

Andrew Gawley’s Steel Hands

In: Nuncius
Jaipreet Virdi University of Delaware Department of History USA Newark, Delaware

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This paper examines the lived experiences of Canadian machinist and double-amputee Andrew A. Gawley (1895–1961), whose prosthetic “steel hands” rose him to fame during the mid-twentieth century, to analyze how disability objects can illuminate complex tensions of unruliness to represent a fraught epistemological materiality. Drawing on Williamson and Guffey’s “design model of disability,” I argue that Gawley’s prostheses are physical and tangible representations of his need to achieve functional normalcy. His self-reliance and identity was not only premised on ability, but dependent upon the complex unruliness ascribed within the prostheses, such that the sensationalized freakery of the “steel hands” become as crucial to Gawley’s identity as his performances of normative masculinity.

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