We are often told how brand-new technology is changing humanity, but we rarely hear enough about how it is impacting individual humans. In December 2020 I joined a unique club of individuals who have been fitted with a 3D-printed bionic arm. The robotic arm is designed and manufactured by Bristol-based Open Bionics and mine was funded by Tej Kohli and the Tej Kohli Foundation, who have a mission to use technology to improve the lives of young people all over the world.
Prominent technologists like Elon Musk and Yuval Noah Harari have popularised the idea that human-robot augmentation is the next frontier in human evolution and evangelise the notion that it will elevate us beyond humans to become ‘super humans’. But what these predictions overlook is the way that human-robot bionics do not just augment physical abilities, but they can also elevate a user by giving them a platform to ‘change the conversation’.
I have a congenital limb deficiency, meaning that I was born without the lower half of my left arm. I have never been comfortable with the notion of ‘disability’ as it suggests that I cannot do things that everyone else can and therefore should receive some form of special treatment. Yes, I have had to find a few more ‘life hacks’ than the average person to get through a typical day, but I consider myself fully able.
Why then did I elect to have a robotic arm fitted? My belief is that it will change the conversation and enable people to perceive me not as “the girl without” (an arm) but “the girl with” a very cool piece of bionic technology. And that is important, because I have a big ambition to make it into mainstream theatre and media.
It only takes one trip to the theatre or cinema to realise how underrepresented the disabled community is in these platforms. Roughly 18% of people in the UK have some form of disability but you wouldn’t think that looking at stage and screen. My desire is to single handedly (pardon the pun) introduce more disability into theatre and performance and my hope is that I can show other ‘disabled’ young people that it can be done and encourage them to pursue their own ambitions on stage.
I have never felt that physical disability has prohibited me from pursuing my acting dreams, but I must acknowledge that there was no one who was physically like me that I could relate to in the industry whilst growing up. The musical theatre and performance industry are a largely able-bodied community. Even today I still have difficulty finding role models in theatre who are working with limb differences.
Growing up, my arm was always been accepted by directors and cast members when going for local youth theatre roles, but I then one day found myself, at eighteen years old, frightened to take the next step into an adult acting career with a disability.
Last year I graduated from The BRIT School in London and this year I have commenced my studies at Mountview to study musical theatre. I have always worked incredibly hard to prove myself, and my worst nightmare is that someone would argue that I’ve been given special treatment for my “diversity”. But am I comfortable with using my being ‘bionic’ giving me a competitive edge as I move forward into an adult career? Absolutely yes!
And this gets to the heart of what it means for me to have become bionic. The practical benefits of a bionic arm are well documented. It is for example, making simple jobs like waitressing accessible to me whilst I pursue my acting dreams. But these practical benefits pale into insignificance compared to how this technology will change the conversation. The biggest benefits of bionic technology are entirely intangible.
I am confident in my talent and work ethic, but if being ‘bionic’ helps to set me apart, then great. More young people are receiving bionic limbs all the time, and I would love to see more of this technology being used on stage and characters being written for actors who have these differences. Perhaps one day I will get to play Glinda in ‘Wicked’ whilst sporting the physical difference of a bionic arm? There is room for everyone in the arts. And there is room for me!
Gracie McGonigal’s journey to becoming bionic has been captured in a YouTube mini-series: