Documentary film ‘Fixed’ panel discussion asks why some bodies are considered ‘disposable’

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Superfest, the longest-running disability film festival in the world, screened the first of its #NoBodyIsDisposable film series June 18, Regan Brashear’s documentary “Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement.”

“Fixed” provides thought-provoking insight into the social and bioethical questions around the use of enhancement technologies. On the surface, there seem to be immense benefits to these technologies (such as bionic limbs and exoskeletons), which can significantly improve a disabled person’s quality of life.

At the same time, the film raises fundamental questions about accessibility and affordability. Who gets to decide what is “normal” when it comes to the human body? As research and technology continue to evolve, won’t the idea of “normal” itself become a moving target? The “normal” body of today could well be the disabled body of tomorrow. And when do we cross the line on using therapeutic technology to help, versus enhancing human ability or even creating a class of super humans, a sort of “better than well”?

The film also posits that ableism and cosmetic surgery are eerily similar — for both, you need to change your body in order to fit in. The film is quick to point out that, from a disability rights perspective, the problem is not the body itself but the social disregard and lack of integration for that kind of body by society.

The film screening was followed by a panel discussion with prominent disability justice activists on how race, disability and size influence which types of bodies are considered “disposable,” especially in light of recent events such as the pandemic, or protests concerning police brutality.

Panel moderator Nikki Brown-Booker, the program officer for Borealis Philanthropy, started with an observation on the prioritization of spending for expensive enhancement technologies, even as there was a shortage of personal protective equipment earlier this year and a lack of community programs to keep people with disabilities out of institutions.

Panelist Valerie Novack, board president of the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, drew attention to the countrywide systemic racial inequalities exposed in recent times. Novack felt that many people automatically assumed that they were safe from COVID-19, while old and disabled bodies were deemed “disposable.” Novack also noted the disproportionate amount of Black people in Chicago who have died from the coronavirus, highlighting the common thread with racial inequalities.

The second panelist was Max Airborne of the NoBody is Disposable coalition, which has intersected fat people, disabled people, older people and people of color. Airborne highlighted that when COVID-19 hit, states started forming triage guidelines for hospitals, which specifically disadvantaged fat people, old people and disabled people from getting care. Airborne added that the language of comorbidities often disguises this denial of care.

In addition, though the connection is not obvious, Airborne stressed that it is important to understand that anti-fatness can actually be a smoke screen or loophole for anti-Black racism. This is because fat and disabled people both exist in higher ratios in Black and Indigenous communities. Airborne cited scholar Sabrina Strings’ work, which concludes that fat-hatred emerged as a function of anti-Blackness and that European colonists did not want white people to develop “Indigenous” bodies. The norm had to be close to whiteness, thinness, youth and health, according to Airborne.

Silvia Yee, attorney at the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, spoke of the profound ways in which law and social change interact. She said laws are important because they allow us to incorporate our collective social values into what the law says. Yee pointed to the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court protecting LGBTQ+ employees from workplace discrimination; she noted that a possible factor behind this decision was the fact that the justices live in a world where 82% of the public supports LGBTQ+ civil rights protections.

Yee added that while law and social change can inhibit each other, they can also bring to life certain ideals of the people who live in the society and who have a different vision of the world: a world not ruled by inequality or stereotypes of the worth of an individual.

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].