Portraying Disabilities In Hollywood
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Portraying Disabilities In Hollywood

Thoughts on Me Before You and why we need to demand more from entertainment.

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Portraying Disabilities In Hollywood
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When I entered the theater to see Me Before You in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on a warm night last month, I was told to expect tears. The people in my group had packages of Kleenex with them, claiming to be prepared for the emotion that would ensue. Half of the group I went with had read the book by Joy Moyes on the plane to Dublin a week prior to the film’s release date and it didn’t take much persuasion to convince me to join in on the fun. I love soppy romantic drama as much as the next female college student.

But when the movie ended and people began to gather their leftover popcorn trays and paper cups, I found that I had no tears. Just furrowed brows, tight lips, and confusion. What had just happened? Then I had to reconcile myself with the fact that I had agreed to pay six euros for such a message. I can only imagine the horror I would have felt if I or one of my loved ones suffered from injuries that Will, the protagonist of the movie, suffered from. As a student who is earning a minor in Special Education, this “love story” left me appalled.

*spoilers ahead*

Will, the attractive, unreasonably wealthy 31-year-old in Me Before You who became a quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident occurred early in the story’s plotline, essentially romanticizes assisted suicide with his decision to end his life after only two years of attempting to come to terms with his disability. His parents are heartbroken. His love interest, Louisa, receives his financial support after his death, which enables her to enrich her life through travel, gourmet food, and an updated wardrobe, as depicted in the last frame of the movie.

While I understand that the author is not required to end her novel in an idealistic way, it is not clear to me why a movie with this ending should have been released. A book has the time and ability to share the perspectives of everyone involved. A book can show readers the daily struggles of a person living with a disability. A book can leave someone with empathy that they may not have had before. But a movie packs hundreds of pages of content into maybe two hours of cinematic distraction, leaving only the most substantial elements of the novel while sacrificing some of the details. Only a basic message will linger in the minds of the audience.

The message? That people with disabilities cannot live a meaningful life the way able-bodied people can.

The sacrifice is evident: emotional depth, meaningful relationship complexities inside the story, and the support of the disabilities community.

And we’re sacrificing all of this for romance.

Unsurprisingly, the community of individuals with disabilities were not pleased with Me Before You. Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group that opposes legal euthanasia, began a protest in response to the movie. On their website, notdeadyet.org, they state, “‘Me before you’ is little more than a disability snuff film, giving audiences the message that if you’re a disabled person, you’re better off dead.” Claiming that tearjerker-films in Hollywood rely on disability stereotypes to build their romances, they plead with people not to see the movie and to actively raise awareness of the film’s damaging message.

Individuals with physical, learning, and mental disabilities have a long history of discrimination. So much so, in fact, that the Americans With Disabilities Act was not established until 1990. This act fought to ensure that individuals with disabilities would be accommodated in the workplace, in travel, and in public services, addressing the need to prohibit discrimination. One defining jury verdict, which found that Wal-Mart had practiced discrimination after refusing a job to a man in a wheelchair who was proven to be capable of a variety of physically challenging tasks, occurred in 1997. Not even twenty years have passed since then and while we may be offering more jobs to people with disabilities, we have also stooped so low as to use them as a meager plot point in a romance movie, trivializing their suffering and minimizing their worth.

According to WISN, Philip Corona, a man who organized a protest of the movie at Bayshore mall, said, “The battle is on...and people have to look at it and know that it isn’t over. There is hope. There’s always hope.” Hope is available to people of disabilities. They only have to look at real life examples.

Consider the widely-known Australian public speaker, Nick Vujicic. This man was born with a rare condition that left him without any arms or legs. Rather than deciding that his life was not worth living, as the protagonist in Me Before You did, he chose to learn how much he could manipulate his limitations. He travels the world speaking about the difference he is able to make in people’s lives, how much this physical disability has enabled him to inspire people he would not have otherwise had the chance to speak to, and how every life is worth living. I read his book, Life Without Limits, while I was in high school, years prior to his marriage and his wife giving birth to two sons.

To those who suffer from a disability, I’m sorry for the message that this movie has spread. To those who suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts, do not go see this movie. Ending your life will not enable your family or loved ones to live a more enriching life.

To the rest, I would urge you to demand more from your entertainment. Support films that promote diversity, ones that truly describe how people of all walks of life experience struggle and triumph. Become a part of the reason that the movies we expose our parents and children to begin to reflect our values.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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