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Paralympic athlete Bebe Vio in the new Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix (2020)
© Netflix

With this year’s Paralympic Games – like so many other major events – postponed, the arrival of Netflix’s Paralympics documentary Rising Phoenix on 26 August might be considered a kind of cinematic reasonable adjustment. 

The trailer, full of beautifully fit impaired bodies (and Prince Harry), promises a similar narrative to Channel 4’s Superhumans campaigns: a genuinely radical new take on what had come before, when the Paralympics were viewed in patronising terms as a niche ‘special needs’ sporting event, often consigned to the broadcasting margins. 

I’m not convinced about disabled people being compared to the mythical Phoenix, as outlined in Netflix’s trailer. The idea that disabled lives are reborn from a heap of useless ashes into sporting epiphany is a slightly worrying one, though I can see the attraction for filmmakers.

For many of us who are disabled people, the Paralympic Games is the moment when our ordinary lives are selectively appraised through the lens of the achievements of a handful of deservedly respected elite athletes. It’s that “educable moment”, to quote Jonathan Freedland from his celebratory Guardian article from 2012, ”the cult of the body imperfect… an insistence that even a flawed body can be glorious”. 

Following each Paralympics, there’s also a collective moment of optimistic envisioning of a bright new future, when disabled people are rendered superhuman or ameliorated by biomechanical design, accompanied by the crumbling of prejudice and discrimination. 

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The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-78)

A few months later, sadly, reality bites. Our ordinary and often barrier-ridden lives tend to carry on as usual.

But the Paralympics do urge us to challenge how we think about disability and our impaired bodies and minds. This might include thinking about whether we are entering a new era of bionics (I still get a flash memory of Lee Majors in the 1970s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man when I hear that word) when advances in biotechnology, enhanced implants and augmented bodies will start to eliminate what some of us call the lived experience of disability. 

Design, whether it relates to adapted environments, services or products, has a key part to play in the defining and framing of the lives of disabled people, but it’s only fairly recently that this framing has been made explicit.

The unique BFI Player collection Disabled Britain on Film, which I am proud to have contributed to in a small way, encourages the viewer to reflect on key moments in this often-invisible history of disabled people, particularly how we’ve been subjected to numerous interventions and representations over the last century. 

Fixing disabled people

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Artificial Limb Making (1916)

Many of these interventions have been technical, medical ones, aimed at restoring lost or missing functions – what has been termed the medical model view of disability.

A poignant early news film from 1916 shows ex-soldiers made disabled by war being put to work making prosthetics for other impaired people – possibly even themselves.

To put this in some kind of historical context, we need to remember that disabled people have always been subject to ‘cure or care’, an idea that’s deeply embedded in the medical model. The main response, as many of the early films in the BFI collection show, was one of incarcerating in segregated institutions. The function of design during this period could be seen as one of containment rather than empowerment.

Towards independence

Only relatively recently has there been a challenge to that doctrine, to promote independence and to permit a degree of choice and control, though this was often focused on ‘mending’ individual disabled people so they could fit better into society.

As part of that shift, there were some interesting early design breakthroughs in nascent technology. The 1970s and 80s saw innovations like the Invacar, a pale-blue three-wheeler/one-seater death trap made of plastic and fibreglass. Creaky and wobbly though it was, it liberated many disabled people and offered an early form of independence. Disabled people who owned one became fond of them, as these protests against its phasing out testify.

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Sip-and-puff Assistive Technology (1975)

Early assistive tech like the then-revolutionary POSSUM (Patient Operated Selector Mechanism) writing system did away with the the need for a carer/scribe. People who had little control over their voices or bodies could now break free and type their own copy. The film Sip-and-Puff Assistive Technology from 1975 tells us more.

From that clunky early beginning we are now, decades on, seriously contemplating the role of digitally smart homes and autonomous carebots in supporting older disabled people. This idea is wittily explored in the 2012 Hollywood crime caper Robot & Frank, in which a retired and disabled jewel thief pairs up with a helpful but resented bot. Pretty soon, Frank’s criminal career is back on track, offering an amusing take on a very different vision of ‘independent living’.

Wheelchairs, for so long the universal, visible and often negative signifier of disability, also went through a shift of meaning. Disability rights activists in the 1980s who used wheelchairs began to see them as tools of liberation, not constraint – from wheelchair-bound to wheelchair warrior.

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Rear Window (1954)

This shift began to be reflected in popular culture. We can look back at familiar stereotypes and representations in film culture – James Stewart’s irascible and frustrated detective/voyeur, immobile in his hospital wheelchair in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), and the title character’s self-propelling, possessed parody of evil genius in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). But then in the 1960s we had Ironside, the disabled TV detective with his mythical converted Ford Econoline van with powered wheelchair ramp – though debates are still ongoing about whether it actually appeared in any episodes.

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Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Later, the wheelchair used by Professor Xavier in the X-Men films became the epitome of futuristic, aspirational design, an object of desire and something to valorise rather than despise. Even Tom Cruise, a non-disabled actor playing Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), imbued his battered wheelchair with the revolutionary spirit that the real Kovic, a hero to many American disability activists, did in the real world.

A laughably outlandish steampunk wheelchair is inhabited by Kenneth Branagh’s Dr Arliss Loveless, who shares many of the qualities of Dr Strangelove, in Wild Wild West (1999). In contrast, we end up with the raw honesty of the documentary Murderball (2005), a film about wheelchair rugby players, utterly independent and in control, and customising their armoured ‘chairs to do battle.

From accessibility to inclusive design

While innovations in technical design offered up the prospect of individual freedoms, the big picture of an inaccessible world was challenged by more radical ideas that put the onus firmly on society to remove the barriers disabled people face, rather than looking at personalised interventions. The challenge was remedying the designed-in barriers that society had unwittingly erected against disabled people, not fixing disabled people to help them climb a set of steps.

Inclusive design says that a world designed for and by the stale, pale and male would reflect the unconscious and conscious biases of the authors of those designs, and would exclude most of the population. Echoes of this perspective have been articulated in terms of gender politics recently by Caroline Criado-Perez.

The solution to the problem of inclusion is to put the user of buildings and products at dead centre – with ease of use, transparency, flexibility and a user-led approach to design all emphasised. Universal design in architecture, public realms and products has been one focus (the TX1 black cab being a notable example of an early attempt at making a public service vehicle that anyone can use, with spin-off future designs like this one).

The audience for this new vision was everyone, and with that came the potential worry that disabled people might be ‘included out’ of the agenda. Would the distinctive barriers that disabled people face be subsumed and ignored once again, given the new imperative to include all of society?

Perhaps the most manifest and elegant example of inclusive design are the iPhone and iPad, which put ease of use and accessibility software and apps at the heart of their design. Not many people know about the accessibility of the devices, but they are intuitive to use for virtually anyone, disabled or not. This is precisely how inclusive design should work in practice.

Liberation technology, or ignoring the barriers?

In the meantime, as we patiently wait for inclusive design to take hold, we still have the febrile world of new technologies that promise enhanced disabled lives, with a nod to sci-fi futurism.

Innovations in stair-climbing wheelchairs and walking exoskeletons excite and raise expectations, as uncannily similar innovations did in the 1980s. But it’s still the same old medical model narrative – let’s normalise impaired bodies and not worry about tedious things like steps and stairs. As disabled blogger and academic Kim Sauder, aka @crippledscholar, suggests, is celebrating accessible technology just reinforcing ableism? And who can afford this technology, even if they wanted it?

There’s an interesting counterpoint to the questionable practice of trying to make impaired bodies conform to a disabling environment. Online gaming is a realm where disabled people become avatars and inhabit virtual bodies. The 1982 film Tron saw Jeff Bridges being immersed in a proto-digital world, becoming a freedom fighter within a contained virtual universe.

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Tron (1982)

More recently, there’s the life-affirming story of Mats Steen, a young Norwegian with a profound physical impairment. Only after his early death did his parents realise he had a global following as the World of Warcraft character, Ibelin. Many fellow gamers attended his funeral and paid tribute. As one said: ”I think Mats was lucky to belong to our time, technologically… he was a key member. If he had been born 15 years earlier, he wouldn’t have found a community like that.”

In many ways, this is a true vision of a society where the notion of disability is rendered meaningless, a world of real inclusion – and where the future holds real promise.

And this is an area where technological innovation can be genuinely empowering, progressive and affordable. Take Microsoft’s Xbox adaptive controller, which aims to make gaming accessible to many disabled people. Crucially, it was developed through partnerships with disabled gamers and their communities, whose input and testing made it as inclusive as possible.

The future must be inclusive…

Within the space of 40 years, we can trace a direct line from the Invacar to the autonomous self-driving car and inclusively designed London taxi. Quantum leaps have been made in the fields of assistive and digital technologies that have the potential to transform the lives of disabled people across the globe. We can even dream of a time when disabling barriers don’t exist, when bionics and biomechanics develop to a point when impaired bodies and even minds are consigned to history.

But there are 2 big questions that still need answering. Will inclusion be built into every new technological development and products from the outset? And, if it is , who will be able to afford to pay for them?

Inclusive design could revolutionise lives, and we rightly need to be positive and, to an extent, utopian in our visions of the future. And yet disabled people are still, 35 years after that 1985 film about access to our high streets was made, campaigning for basic accessibility to our environment, services and products. Inclusive design is a laudable and important end goal, but it’s not a quick fix – it may take generations before it gathers momentum as a universally adopted business idea and begins to have an impact at a level that is practical and meaningful.

Rising Phoenix is not the first film that Netflix has released on the subject of disability this year. Crip Camp arrived to much acclaim in January. A million miles from the glorifying rhetoric and fabulous impaired bodies of their new Paralympics documentary, it was just as beautiful to watch, because it’s about witnessing young American disabled people coming together in the heady 1970s and forming what has been called the last civil rights movement, together with other activists and allies like the Black Panthers.

It shows the birth of another utopian vision, one of civil rights for disabled Americans. Many of those teenage kids – most prominently Judith Heumann – went on to become hugely influential activists and campaigners, shifting attitudes to disabled people and pressuring politicians and civic society to make the world more inclusive and accessible. And without them, films like Rising Phoenix may never have been made.

  • Graham Findlay is a disabled person and disability equality consultant