A linguistic anthropologist breaks his arm: Indexical order of an elbow brace

It’s been a week since this crash happened, which is more than enough time for my nerd brain to kick in and start treating my experience as an ad-hoc research field site. (Actually, this happened pretty much right away, as I was sitting in the emergency room waiting area, watching myself “doing being-the-patient” and thinking about how my medical case was being processed by the institution. Ethnography: can’t stop, won’t stop.) So much has happened over the week, which I’m considering as a participant-observation experience of being a person with a (temporary) disability, but the specific data point that I’m pulling out for analysis here is the brace that I’ve been wearing on my elbow since Monday. What does it mean that I’m walking around with this piece of hardware on my arm?

The doctor said not to straighten my elbow

From a semiotic perspective, I’ll consider the brace to be an index rather than an icon or symbol; that is, a sign by causation, not by resemblance or convention*. To determine what the brace means, what we need to consider is the reason why I’m wearing it. But why am I wearing it? The orthopedist said that the break in my radius looks like it was caused by a hyperextension**, and so for it to heal, I need to limit my range of motion. Specifically, he said, I shouldn’t straighten my arm past a 150° angle, so he set the little slider to 30° (the markings measure the supplementary angle, not the actual angle of extension). So on the first order, the brace is an index of the doctor’s prescription: don’t straighten your elbow too far.

At this point in my recovery, though, I’m not capable of straightening my elbow to 150°. The best I can do is about 130°, as illustrated in the photo above. (I moved the slider from 30 to 50 so that I could actually use the brace to take some of my weight.) So the doctor’s specific prescription is not so much at issue here, and what the brace is indexing is the fact that I’ve had some kind of injury. This is a second-order index, to be precise; I’m wearing the brace because the doctor told me not to straighten my elbow, and he made this prescription because he observed that I was injured.

As it turns out, even straightening my arm to 130° is a bit of a stretch, and I’m most comfortable at around 90–100 most of the time. I wear the brace out of the house, but I’m typically supporting my own elbow, sometimes by carrying my right hand in my left hand to take the weight. (I also have another broken bone in my right shoulder near the AC joint, and it’s a strain on my shoulder to take the weight of the arm plus brace for extended periods.) The brace itself isn’t really useful to me, at least not mechanically. So the real reason why I’m wearing it is a third-order index: not because I’m injured, but because I want to be treated as an injured person. I want people to be careful about jostling me on the subway. If I have to sign a piece of paper, I want to ask for a low table to sign it on, without having to explain why. If I’m working in a coffee shop and I have to prop my elbow on a chair to type, I don’t want to be judged for using more than my share of furniture.

Obviously this is going to differ from one person to another, and from one setting to another, but I wonder how often this third order is part of the function of the various visible signs of disability. A cane can help a blind person to navigate through space, and a wheelchair can help a physically disabled person to be mobile, but both of these objects also function as signs that say “Please give me space.”

* although it is, at a more basic level, an icon of the elbow joint itself.

** i.e. it’s an icon of other examples of hyperextension that he’s seen in his training and practice; an index of the impact that produced the injury.

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