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- Schilling, Carol
Summary:The opening of the documentary Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement is meant to startle. A young woman (disabled performance artist Sue Austin) in a motorized wheelchair fitted with transparent plastic fins gracefully glides underwater around seascapes of coral and populations of tropical fish. The scene dislodges expectations about what wheelchairs can do and where they belong. It creates what for many are unlikely associations among disability, wonder, joy, freedom, and beauty. Watching Austin incites questions about what this languid and dreamy scene might have to do with human enhancement, which more predictably brings to mind dazzling mechanical, chemical, or genetic interventions that surpass the ordinariness of a wheelchair and extend human capacities. But this gentle scene opens the way for the film’s conversations about the ethics and meanings of human enhancement that emphasize perspectives by people with disabilities.
Regan Brashear’s film features interviews with and footage of people living with disabilities as they move in varied ways through their environments—home, workplace, airport, therapy lab, city street. Photographs, news footage, and performances by mixed-ability dance companies complement their stories. We also hear from a transhumanist, academicians, and activists. Together they express a wider range of views about human enhancement than seems possible in an hour-long film.
Often contrastive views are paired or clustered. For instance, double amputee Hugh Herr, Director of MIT’s Biomechtronics Group, brags that his carbon-fiber and other prosthetic legs will outperform the biological legs of aging peers. His lab develops robotic limbs controlled by biofeedback, and he intends to end disability through mechanical technologies. Gregor Wolbring, a biochemist and bioethics scholar who was born without legs, regards himself as a version of normal and rejects being fixed. “I’m happy the way I am!” he exuberantly proclaims. Rather than strive for normalcy through restorative technology, Wolbring urges acceptance of imperfection.
Altogether, the interviewees raise questions about how to respond to differences among human bodies: focus on corrections toward achieving a concept of “normal”? accept diversity? extend human potential? The interviews call out underlying assumptions about disability that influence our answers. Do we assume that disability is an aberration that should be erased? A condition located in individual bodies? A condition brought about by unaccommodating social and built environments? Or, as disabled journalist John Hockenberry proposes, “a part of the human story”?
Fixed also asks what the social and ethical consequences of pursuing enhancements might be. Do they equalize opportunity? Do they misplace priorities by channeling attention and resources away from basic health care and ordinary, essential technologies, such as reliable, affordable wheelchairs? Are biological, chemical, and mechanical enhancements indispensible opportunities to extend human experience, as transhumanist James Hughes claims? Do we have an ethical responsibility to enhance, whether to correct or extend?
Hockenberry mentions that we already enhance. Think of eyeglasses, telescopes, hearing aids. People with disabilities, he points out, are typically the first adopters of technologies, such as computer-brain interfaces, that are destined for wider use. Archival film footage of warfare during this discussion reminds us what many of those uses have been. Should we worry, he asks, about using people with disabilities as research subjects? Or should we say with recently paralyzed Fernanda Castelo, who tests an exoskeleton that braces her body as it moves her forward: “Why not”?
Considering whether we should trust technology to create equality or treat each other equally in the presence of our differences, disability rights attorney Silvia Yee poses the film’s most vital question: “Which is the world you want to live in?” While Fixed gives a fair hearing to disparate answers, the closing image is suggestive. A woman in a motorized wheelchair offers a lift to someone struggling to push a manual chair uphill. She invites him to grasp the back of hers and they roll forward together.