Warning: contains film spoilers
If you have met one person in a wheelchair. You have met one person in a wheelchair.
When I was in Sixth Form studying hard for my A-levels (cough), me and my friends would sit around the common room having deep philosophical debates like: “which teacher would you snog to save your Mum’s life?” and “would you marry someone on the dole who had no money?” Cutting edge stuff.
One of the more interesting discussions was what would you do if you lost a leg and ended up in a wheelchair? At 17 years old, losing the ability to use your legs was the worst thing ever. Yet in context the worst thing ever was also if Billy Boneman blanked you or if we had to do double maths on a sunny Friday afternoon.
The naive, centre-of-my-own-universe teenage me actually didn’t think that the use of a wheelchair was the end of the world stuff. I argued that there were worst things. For me, the idea of losing my sight was more galling. For how would I read, write, watch films – all the things I adored? But as I stated I was naive and ignorant.
A two-day school retreat with pupils from our neighbouring school for the blind put those misconceptions firmly in their box. A little bit of education goes a long way.
Now I live in a world where a wheelchair is part of our lives. A pretty dominant part of our lives. It has to be taken into consideration in most of our everyday decisions. Where shall we go today? Is it accessible? Therefore, is it worth it? Where shall we live – shall we adapt this house or move? What about schools? When do we need a wheelchair-assisted vehicle?
That is why the debate surrounding a new film due to open next week hits home. The film Me Before You is based on the best-selling book by JoJo Moyes about a quadriplegic man named Will who is suicidal because he has become disabled.
It has evoked quite a response from disability campaigners saying that the film “capitalizes on existing widely held negative ideas about disability and exploits them as fodder for entertainment” and “on top of lazy writing, this film will leave a tragic legacy. Aimed at the younger audience, the book and now the film will create another generation that is sure that they’d rather die than be disabled and that assisted suicide is a noble thing to do.”
I listen a lot to disability campaigners these days who are trying to make the world a better place for my child. I am hugely thankful that social media provides me with a platform to access a viewpoint that I can never garner as parent caregiver – the actual direct experience of living with a disability. I applaud their #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs stance.
So I very much get the uproar. I agree to not have a disabled actor play the role of a disabled character is shameful. Also the underlying debate of is life worth living if you are “confined” to a wheelchair? is perhaps not given the careful consideration it merits by the Hollywood big-wigs.
I really do get it.
I loved Me Before You. I am a big fan of JoJo Moyes and this is one of my favourite books ever. I loved it so much I recommended it to everyone.
This was before disability touched my own life.
You see what I think is missing from the very fruitful debate is that we are probably doing a huge disservice to the millions of movie goers that watch this film. Just because the plot of this story is that Will couldn’t live with his disability doesn’t than mean that everyone who watches it will suddenly think “oh yeah everyone in wheelchairs would be better off dead”.
You know why I loved the book so much. It was because it haunted me for a long time afterwards. I hated the ending. I hated that he gave up. I hated that he couldn’t see that his life was so worth living. I hated that the only person who thought he was a burden was him. I hated his spoilt, pompous, over-privileged attitude and I hated what he did to his parents.
I hated that he took another emotionally broken person and broke them some more.
I hated his cowardice. I hated that no one could make him change his mind.
(I hate now that he couldn’t appreciate how relatively easier his life was compared to others in the same boat due to his wealth – no fighting for adaptations, or care packages, or equipment. But I didn’t know about any of that when I read the book)
I hated all that and that is why I loved the book.
And I think a lot of people who read the book loved it for the same reason.
I hope this will be the case for those that watch the film too.
It made me stop and think. And that is a powerful tool. It made me think about what it is that makes your life worthwhile? What would be my breaking point? How would I adapt if the same fate befell me? I thought about why out of two main characters, who were both picking up the pieces from tragic events, one was able to go on while the other wasn’t?
I know some book snobs will scoff, but for me the book was about so much more than disability. It made me see that strength of mind is stronger than physical strength.
That said, I am thrilled that for a small time it is putting disability on the agenda.
The world is changing – disability is around us more than ever. More and more of us are touched by it in some way. As humans we are genetically programmed to adapt and survival of the fittest is an evolving concept.
More children, like my son, are surviving the neonatal period whereas in previous decades without the current medical advances they would have perished. For Gabe, it would have been a simple milk protein allergy that would have robbed him of the ability to thrive.
On the other end of the spectrum, medial intervention means more people are living longer but we are seeing growing levels of disability in the older populations than before.
Anyone with frail parents will have experience of this.
The advent of the baby boom generation into this age group – the huge group of children born after the second world war who grew up projecting a rebellious, idealistic attitude that promised to reshape society – will be a game changer. Disability services will be stretched to their limits hopefully forcing positive reform and changing perceptions of impairment.
The degrees of separation between the able and disabled world are getting smaller.
For all these reasons it is too simplistic to say that the film Me Before You is dangerous for force-feeding us “yet another disability stereotype”.
I think the disabled community should see it as an opportunity to push the debate forward. Those that watch the film will have no choice but to ponder on life in a wheelchair and while you have their attention, build on it. Now is a good time to highlight all the important current campaigns that would improve the lives of people with disability and chronic disease.
No one I knew who read the book wanted Will Traynor to kill himself. We championed him. We willed him to see what we could see.
That he had lots to offer life and life had so much more to offer him.
And there will be lots of people out there now struggling with the same demons.
Me Before You might yet challenge pre-conceived ideas about disability for all the right reasons in all the right ways.
I really hope so.
P.S. I have not yet seen the film and reserve the right to change my opinion after viewing.