If a man with prosthetic legs can run faster than someone with regular legs, does that make him disabled? How about a woman who, at age 85, has prosthetic arms that offer her more dexterity than her biological arms ever could? In the film Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, director Regan Brashear explores what it means to be disabled—and the potential hazards of technologies like "smart" pills and pre-natal screening that can wean out undesirable traits.
In the film, Brashear talks with people with opinions across the spectrum. There's Hugh Herr, a charismatic bionics engineer and amputee who believes that futuristic artificial limbs give people an advantage over the real thing. There's Patty Berne, a disabilities justice advocate who thinks focusing on robotic limbs is a waste of time when so many people lack access to basic wheelchairs. And there's Tim Hemmes, a young paralyzed man who is testing out brain computer interface technology that could one day be used by all of us.
The mesmerizing opening sequence, a woman in a wheelchair deep-sea diving, is the work of performance artist Sue Austin. Brashear licensed the footage, which was originally commissioned for the Paralympics.
"The title 'Fixed' raises the question of different frameworks of understanding disability," says Brashear, who began working on her film as a graduate student at University of California, Santa Cruz. "It's a clashing of the medical model of disability—we can fix the body—versus the social model, saying that we need to change society to embrace the diversity of human life. It's a question of, what are we fixing?"
Brashear's film features a dance motif, with images of both disabled and non-disabled dancers sprinkled throughout the film. One of the most striking is of a pair of dancers—Lisa Bufano and Sonsheree Giles—each walking on four stilts. Bufano, who recently took her own life, makes the use of her lack of legs and fingers in a spider-like performance.
A former union organizer, Brashear originally came into her project siding with Patty Byrne's ideas about providing access to basic care before delving into more futuristic technology. Eventually, she started challenging her own beliefs. "It's about breaking out of narrow categories and understanding that this isn't a simple debate," she says. "We're always in a process of co-evolving with our technologies. Who is to judge Hugh Herr for the work he's doing?"