Now airing on BBC Two, Series 2 of “The Big Life Fix” in which “The UK’s leading inventors create ingenious new solutions to everyday problems and build life-changing solutions for people in desperate need.”
As a historian of science and engineering interested in equity, I’ve been watching the BBC program, “The Big Life Fix” with a steadily growing number of questions. The program, now in its second series on BBC2, features a team of British scientists and engineers (pictured above) who weekly devise means to facilitate the mobility, safety, employment, or other experiences of disabled people. In each episode, three different disabled people are visited by materials experts or industrial designers who ultimately provide them with innovative means of transport, recreation, physical security, self-expression, or work. The extensive resources of university labs, hospitals, materials suppliers and service organizations support the experts’ efforts and in Series 1 and the first episode of Series 2, at least, the outcomes are universally successful: A disabled snowboarder experiences his sport for the first time since an accident dramatically reduced his muscle control; an aspiring hairstylist whose hand has limited ability to grip conventional combs and scissors receives a collection of custom-designed styling tools; a young photographer who cannot grasp conventional equipment receives a camera well fitted to his precise sort of dexterity; and so on as children and adults with a wide range of physical disabilities encounter the team.
The twitterverse has found the series to be “awe-inspiring” and “lip-wobbling.” But despite some maudlin PR language (see the BBC-supplied caption above), the show’s actual portrayal of disabled people’s physicalities doesn’t obviously pivot on pathos in the way of, say, footage used in the old Jerry Lewis Telethons or newer Paralympics promotions. Though one was pitying and the other is routinely venerating, those narratives have objectified disabled bodies by casting them as either needing fixing or fixed (ascriptions to which Eli Clare and other disabilities scholars would lend equivalence, of course). Here by contrast the tech experts remain meticulously attentive to their clients’ voices as they go about their design work. In other words, what requires repair or constitutes an improvement is never determined by the experts alone. But what might disabilities activists and critical scholars say about this project of bringing the bespoke products of tech ingenuity to disabled users? Besides offering viewers an intriguing opportunity to watch designers and engineers solve complex technical problems, demystifying the steps involved in the design process if not (tellingly) the nature of design genius itself, why make and broadcast such a program? Why watch it? What is “The Big Life Fix” fixing, exactly?
I’m wondering about the show’s potential to change perceptions and wider experiences of disability with its uplifting recipe of technical ingenuity and good intentions. Possibly, in bringing mechanical and material innovations to the needs expressed by some disabled people, and with a concertedly dialogic approach to defining those needs, “The Big Life Fix” is doing enough. After all, foregrounding the complex, indeterminate character of bodies for audiences is no small goal for television. The show makes the point clearly that we cannot know a priori what anyone’s experience of disability might be, or what disabled individuals might desire in terms of functionality or comfort that they do not yet have. In this way, the program could disrupt some of the objectification and condescension that often surround disability in English and American media and society.
But the program’s implicit aim to offset ablist sensibilities with near-anthropological story telling—that is, to recast the disabled among us into people who are, if not familiar, then at least worth both meeting and helping–ultimately makes the us-and-them construct of the show feel inescapable. The scientists and engineers seem brilliant and modest; their interactions with their clients track as engaged technical exchanges rather than as charitable service. But the program adds up, through its suspenseful narration, editing and overall arc each week, to just such a story of rescuing the deserving. We watch the inventors overcome baffling design challenges as they struggle with what come across as intractable metals, plastics, and, it must be said, bodies. The narratives of “inventing the impossible” (a BBC tagline for the show), ultimately feel like celebrations of extraordinarily dedicated inventors, not a series of balanced collaborations, and what’s more, like a collection of humanistic triumphs over human deficits. So: Heroic science meets disabled people in “desperate need” of “fixing”…hardly a new or transformative framing of either party despite the demonstrable value of the invented devices to those who will use them.
The sense of science-as-savior that comes through makes the line between abled/expert and disabled/client (patient? subject?) far starker than one imagines the featured experts might with or intend. But if we don’t want that message of otherness and rescue to prevail for viewers, shouldn’t we ask: Where are the disabled engineers and designers in “The Big Life Fix,” or the activists and policy makers, or for that matter, the disabled people for whom the proffered mechanical device might be an appreciative improvement to functionality but no significant answer to political or economic exclusion? No meaningful counter to systemic injustice? I am curious to know how these communities might see this program.
I‘m looking at this program from the vantage point of a historian of science and equity, and I already have some evidence that “The Big Life Fix” is powerfully inspiring to young scientists and engineers who chafe at the idea of state or corporate applications for their developing knowledge. But to see the featured fixes as confronting inequities—whether we are talking about discriminatory cultural dispositions towards disability or the concrete lack of affordable health care, housing, transport and daily support in the UK and US—feels inappropriate. So, I think we could ask more of the BBC. As currently framed in the program, social structures and state policies—notoriously unsupportive of disabled people in austerity-focused England and increasingly cruel in the U.S. under Trump– need no ingenious interventions, no redesign. This is much the same way that tropes of inclusion often work, as I keep harping on about: casting solutions to injustice as a matter of earnest encounters and good feeling. Viewers might want to ask why the show’s more welcome initiatives—its open-ended inquiries into the experiences of disabled people; its garnering of resources for individuals often left without resources; and its staging of respectful conversations between STEM and non-STEM folks—could not be put towards a real transformation in our thinking about disability.
For those interested in critical studies of technology and disability, I recommend Aimi Hamraie’s Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability; Bess Williamson’s Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design, as well as writings by Liz Jackson, Beth Robertson, and others.