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  • Writer's pictureEmma Vogelmann

Being Disabled Doesn’t Have to Be a Tragedy

I went to see the film ‘Me Before You’ last week, not knowing how I would feel about it given the protests made by the disabled community and given that it was one of the first big ‘Hollywood’ films about an ordinary disabled person. I had seen ‘The Theory of Everything’ when it came out and, like everyone, I was in awe at the brilliance and determination of Stephen Hawking but I didn’t feel that personally connected to his story. ‘Me Before You’ however, was entirely different. [SPOILERS]

The film is about a man, Will, played by Sam Claflin, who becomes a quadriplegic after an accident and finds an unlikely friendship, and possibly love, in his new carer Louisa played by Emilia Clark. This twist in the tale is that Will is deeply unhappy being severely disabled and cannot let go of the active person he once was and he wants to end his life through assisted suicide in Switzerland. A large part of the disabled community took issue with this as they believed the film suggests it is better to be dead than live severely disabled. I understood this point before I saw the film but wasn’t sure I completely agreed with it as it never occurred to me when I read the book. I think I never thought about it because the book was about Louisa and the film was about Will. During the film I paid more attention to Will’s negative attitude towards being disabled and not Louisa’s determination to show him the wonderful things life can still offer him. The book had a positive feel to it as it focused on all the things Will could do but the film chose to focus on all potential the obstacles he’d face doing anything.

During the film I felt myself getting angry, not because I’m not sympathetic to Will’s incredibly hard situation, but because I couldn’t help but make comparisons between his life and my own. Here are the differences between my life and Will’s; he lost his ability to walk whereas I have never been able to walk. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to have full independence and have it taken away and I don’t wish to belittle it in any way. The similarity between my life and Will’s though, is almost everything else. Neither Will nor I have a condition that will get worse and might eventually kill us or cause us unbearable pain, and we both completely rely on others to take care of us. There are so many mentions in the film about some of the care Will needs that the able-bodied characters say they would find humiliating. I find these types of comments more hurtful and humiliating than the care they’re talking about. Personal care is not something disabled people get a choice on. It is part of our daily lives so we learn how to deal with it and it is normal to us. I felt like the characters were passing judgement on me and my life. Is this unreasonable? Well yes and no. Yes, because it is just a film and it’s not about me. No, because while most people seeing the film won’t have first-hand knowledge or experience of being disabled or know someone disabled and therefore are able to treat it as just a film, I can’t. The problems Will faces in the film such as people talking over him because they assume he can’t understand and having to figure out where he can charge his equipment, are problems I face every day so it’s hard not to take the attitudes in the film personally, particularly when some of these are small problems to me but to Will, they feel so big that they dissuade him from doing things.

I understand that not all people are able to cope with the loss Will goes through and ‘Me Before You’ is portraying that story. The problem is that there are so few “Hollywood” portrayals of the disabled experience that when one comes along, particularly as big as this one, it is important to accurately represent the members of the disabled community. I think this is partly why I took the film so personally, because it is one of the few mainstream films about what it’s like to be disabled and whether I like it or not, it will have an effect on how people think of real disabled people. I acknowledge there are those like Will, who can’t cope and I’m not saying his feelings are invalid because of it, but there are so many more disabled people who aren’t like Will. The majority of us learn to cope with our struggles and lead full lives.

A friend of mine said that not all people are as strong as I am which I understand, but strength wasn’t a choice I made. Not leading the life that I do was never an option I considered. I never considered just staying at home where things are comfortable and easier instead of getting a law degree and trying to get a job campaigning for human rights. (We can’t really afford fewer people to be doing this right now!) I don’t want people to think of my life is humiliating because it isn’t. My life is hard but it is also rewarding. I want people to have a better understanding of the challenges I face on a daily basis but understand that this is not all that I am.

This was orignially published on The Huffington Post UK on July 4, 2016.

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