Is inequality ultimately a question of technology? Although never explicitly spoken in the film, this question lies at the core of Regan Brashear's provocative documentary. Over the course of the film, we encounter a range of thinkers ruminating on versions of this question, from transhumanists and futurists (e.g., Jamais Cascio and James Hughes) to disability activists and scholars (Patty Berne, Gregor Wolbring, Silvia Yee), from bionics engineers and scientists (Hugh Herr and Rodney Brooks) to experts in social justice and genetic technologies (Marcy Darnovsky and Sujatha Jesudason). Interspersed throughout the film are clips of dance performances (including Axis Dance Company, Lisa Bufano, GIMP, and Antoine-Devinci Hunter) as well as promotional videos from technology companies, short "person in the street" interviews about desired superpowers and improvements, and excerpts from mainstream news stories. As this partial cast of characters suggests, Fixed aims to offer diverse perspectives on the question of "enhancement" technologies.
Although the film does not stage debates among the various experts, strategic editing positions many of them in opposition; Brashear chooses to keep her questions (and herself) off-camera, but interviewees seem to be responding to similar questions and even each other's answers. Differences in opinion about the practice of crawling, for example, divide Herr, the bionics engineer, and Wolbring, the ability studies scholar. 1 After Wolbring playfully and defiantly declares that "crawling is in, walking is out," he explains that crawling is simply one modality out of many; the film visually illustrates this position by showing Wolbring crawling to perform some tasks and using his wheelchair to accomplish others. 2 While Wolbring describes crawling in positive terms, Herr has the opposite response, casting it as the ultimate sign of failure or defeat: "I mountain climb. I trail run. I play tennis. I do everything I want to do. If you remove the technology from my body, all I can do is crawl. I'm completely crippled." For Wolbring, crawling represents one possibility or choice among others, but for Herr, crawling marks the lack of choice, the end of possibility. Interestingly, both men express discomfort with the labels of disabled and impaired, albeit for very different reasons. Herr stresses that access to his (abundant) technologies renders him not only nondisabled but super-abled; he moves more capably and efficiently on his prosthetic legs than he ever did before. Wolbring's rejection of impairment, however, is based not on technology but on attitude; his ways of moving and being are simply "variations" on species-typical functioning. His phrasing and affect encourage us not to eliminate disability, as Herr urges, but to recognize disability as difference, as welcome variation.
One of the most important debates in the film is on the topic of inequality, with the arguments of Hughes juxtaposed with those of Berne, Darnovsky, and Jesudason (former colleagues at the Center for Genetics and Society). 3 Jesudason bluntly states that she tends not to engage with transhumanists because they act as if inequality does not exist; along with Darnovsky and Berne, she offers a brief history of the role of technological advancement in creating and perpetuating inequalities and oppression. For his part, Hughes acknowledges the problem of inequality, but is unsure why human enhancement technologies should take the blame. On the contrary, he suggests, technology should be embraced for its ability to eradicate inequality by eradicating difference. Through what he calls "liberal eugenics," parents will be able to choose the "best futures" for their children. Berne and Jesudason counter with the history and legacy of eugenics, particularly the racist, classist, and ableist dimensions of a focus on the "unfit," and Jesudason instead imagines a society that addresses inequality by providing better supports to families and communities.
This debate over eugenics and inequality also plays out through the film's use of imagery. After Hughes articulates his hope for a liberal eugenics—capped off by the stunning assertion that parents of children with Down syndrome would be better served by getting a dog—the film moves to footage of performances by the Anjali Dance Company, all of whose performers have learning disabilities. The film toggles back and forth between activists and scholars such as Berne, Darnovsky, and Jesudason warning about the implications of selective abortion, particularly in terms of Down syndrome, and footage from Anjali and other mixed ability dance companies and disabled artists. The dance footage appears as a direct counter to Hughes, in some cases by showcasing disabled dancers smiling and immersed in community (e.g., Anjali) and in others by offering images of dancers moving as furiously as they can, seeming to be physically fighting off Hughes' assertions (e.g., Lezlie Frye and Lawrence Carter-Long of GIMP).
Family photographs and memories provide another counternarrative to the assertion that disabled lives are not worth living. Bednarska recounts how her maternal aunt would chastise Bednarska's mother, asserting that, "if my child were born with a disability, I would hang myself from a tree." The screen then fills with photos of Bednarska as a child, including ones of her embraced by her smiling parents, a silent rebuttal of her aunt's (and the larger ableist culture's) limited imagination of what children can be. Although the film is focused on enhancement technologies, this moment is a reminder of the role families and communities can play in opposing ableism. (Wolbring offers another example, noting that his parents taught him to view himself as "variation" rather than deviance or defect.)
As these hints suggest, in formulating binary questions of technology—particularly the question of whether to fix disabled people or society—the film leaves other framings and questions unaddressed. We learn very little, for example, about the spectacular crip technologies on display throughout the film. What are the stories behind Wolbring's lever-operated manual wheelchair? What does it enable or allow that the more standard pushrim wheelchair does not? Or how did Sue Austin develop her underwater wheelchair? What does it feel like to swim on wheels? What kinds of questions of technology might be opened up by focusing less on militarized exoskeletons and more on Bufano's mesmerizing prosthetics? Or, to move to a less spectacular register, what might we learn from disabled people's more mundane—but no less creative—interactions with tools and technologies? Are there ways to conceive of crip/machine interfaces beyond the registers of fixing or to understand "enhancement" as more than amped-up normalization?
We also get little insight into the labor and production of these technologies. As Bednarska notes, technology can itself be disabling, but this point is one the film leaves largely unaddressed. We do not learn about how so-called enhancement technologies can be detrimental to users' minds and bodies over the long term or how they might produce pain; nor do we learn about the potentially debilitating effects on the workers expected to produce the requisite technologies.
Of course, these gaps are part of what makes the film such a useful resource for teaching. In asking these particular questions of technology, what other questions are foreclosed or dismissed? What can we surmise about the film's projected audience from its explicit and implicit questions? What kinds of questions constitute "disability studies" or "crip" questions of technology? Indeed, the film could serve as an introductory text for a course or discussion of what Aimi Hamraie has termed "crip feminist technoscience studies," work that is "attentive to what types of difference and embodiment are valued, omitted, or normalized when we talk about disability […] and technology" (308).
Near the end of the film, Yee poses the film's key question of technology: "Which is more idealistic?" Creating a world in which everyone treats one another equally, or one in which everyone is made equal, made to possess the same abilities? Noting that both questions are idealistic, she then reframes: "Which is the world you want to live in?" Although the film leaves related questions unanswered (and unaddressed), and it largely lets the viewer decide how to respond to some experts' desire to eliminate disability, Fixed does give Berne the last word. As the film closes with Berne rolling down the sidewalk, giving a companion a tow home in his manual chair, she simply reminds viewers that variations in ability are what it means to be alive.
- Hamraie, Aimi. "Cripping Feminist Technoscience." Hypatia 30, no. 1 (2015): 307-313.
"Ability Studies" is Wolbring's framing.
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I admit to a thrill of recognition here. Herr's comments explain why we so rarely see images of disabled people crawling—other than for purposes of protest or performance—but here's hoping Wolbring's appearance sparks more documentation of this everyday (yet spectacularly stigmatized) modality.
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In the interest of full disclosure: I worked with Berne, Jesudason, and Yee in the organization Generations Ahead, and I am deeply indebted to the three of them for my understanding of eugenics, genetic technologies, and social justice.
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