Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Reflections on "Fixed"

The documentary film "Fixed" raises crucial questions surrounding technologies for human “advancement” that are of the utmost import to disability studies scholars and people with disabilities more broadly. The film explores a range of research and development surrounding technologies allegedly aimed at enhancing the human body and offers a variety of perspectives including, among others, people with disabilities both in favor of and strongly opposed to such technologies, as well as researchers, journalists, and disability rights advocates.

I found myself most identifying with the perspective of a woman in the film who uses a wheelchair and pointed out that, while she is glad to have her wheelchair, and thinks a better model would be nice (she gives the example of wheelchairs that could go up stairs), the amount of money poured into research for so-called human-enhancing technology demonstrates the profoundly and disturbingly misplaced priorities of the U.S. healthcare system. She points out that the leading cause of death globally is preventable diseases, and even within the U.S. many people lack access to basic healthcare and services. She argues that human variation is intrinsic to the human condition and highlights the dangers of these sorts of technologies. She intimates, moreover that she would rather see everyone have better access to basic resources and healthcare than see funding continually allocated toward expensive and time-consuming research initiatives justified, notably, with language co-opted from social justice movements. I also want to add to her point something the movie didn’t mention, namely, the conditions of global capitalism under which these technologies are being funded, developed, and produced, conditions which are inherently disabling for those globally disenfranchised by the imperialist expansion necessary to sustain the capitalist system. 

I found particularly off-putting the perspective of a few proponents of these technologies who argued that, while of course people with disabilities shouldn’t be discriminated against and these technologies should never be forced upon those who don’t want them, human-enhancing technologies should be available to those who do want them. These arguments, firmly rooted in the ideology of individualism, were made by invoking the rhetoric of freedom and individual choice that pervades U.S. society. Such arguments are steeped in Enlightenment notions of individual autonomy that ignore the social, historical, and political contexts within which individual decisions are made and, I think, naively imply that the creation of technologies for human “betterment” are not inherently sending messages to people who don’t want them that they’re not good enough. This discourse obscures the fact that we are not wholly autonomous individuals but, rather, our individual choices, perceptions, and sentiments are shaped and constrained by the social, cultural, political, and historical milieu within which they emerge.

On the whole, I thought the film presented complex debates and offered diverse and nuanced perspectives. I was left thinking how damaging linear narratives of progress that extol science and technology as solutions to what are fundamentally social, cultural and political problems rooted in societal structures continue to be. Many of the perspectives in the film perpetuated this discourse, upholding a mythology of science as some sort of panacea to social injustices. Such arguments ignore the conditions under which these technologies are created, differential access to such technologies consequent of broader systemic economic injustices, and the implications of making technologies to “improve” humans for those who don’t wish to use “enhancing” technologies, for both people with and without disabilities.

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