Note: This piece contains spoilers about the film Me Before You.
On June 3rd, Warner Bros released its film adaptation of Me Before You, a bestselling novel by Jojo Moyes. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it centers on a former high-powered executive, Will Traynor, and an ordinary girl, Louisa Clark, who fall in love in the most unexpected of circumstances.
Will has a spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair. True to enduring stereotypes of disability, he is angry and bitter about his circumstances. Louisa is a café-worker-turned-caregiver whose unconventional approach to life makes her almost immediately endearing. The two develop a deep love for each other that feels both inevitable and authentic.
And Will still chooses to kill himself at the hands of others. He follows through on his methodical plan to commit suicide because the rigors of life in a wheelchair simply make his a life that is not worth living.
As much of the world sobs into the last few pages of their books — and soon into their tubs of buttery popcorn — I feel compelled to quote Al Pacino’s famous line from Scent of a Woman: this is such a crock of shit!
There is no question this is a crock of shit because, of all the uncertainty that exists in the world, there is at least one thing I know with a deep sense of conviction — people who use wheelchairs don’t actually want to kill themselves.
Admittedly, I have a bit of specialized knowledge about this sort of thing. I was born with a rare neuromuscular disease, and I’ve used a wheelchair my entire life. My condition affects the muscles throughout the body, slowly creating greater and greater paralysis. I went from an adolescent boy who double-fisted most meals to a man approaching middle age who has eaten through a feeding tube for the past twenty-two years. Most recently, I had a tracheostomy placed and began using a ventilator to support my respiratory muscles.
And life still goes on.
It actually goes on in quite a busy and fulfilling way. After being mainstreamed into public school in the fourth grade, I went on to earn two degrees from a major California university, rushing a fraternity and participating in the honors program. Then I graduated from law school. And then I became a member of the State Bar of California. Today, I work with people from around the world as a freelance writer. I make some people laugh, I piss others off and I worry about the grey hair in my goatee. I have wonderful friendships and an awesome family. And from personal experience, I can assure you that Helen Hunt does not portray the only woman in the world who has ever made love with a man who uses a wheelchair.
To be fair though, I can’t deny there have been brief moments in my life when a convergence of events seemingly out of my control have made me seriously consider giving up on life. It was second down and goal on February 1st, 2015 when Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll made what was quite possibly the worst call in the history of the NFL, ultimately crowning Tom Brady and the New England Patriots Super Bowl champions. Any time Tom Brady wins I want to kill myself, but that day I feel like it could have really happened. And when I read the newspaper and think about our state of politics and look at the leaders of tomorrow, I ask myself whether it would be best just to do myself in now. Commercials for the Bachelor and the Bachelorette make me want to unplug the ventilator.
Other than that though, I’m good.
It may be hard for many people to believe that, because the wheelchair and the tubes and the hoses are a big mystery to most folks. Disability does not directly intersect with most people’s lives. Not everyone has a friend or a family member or a coworker with a disability. Only over the past few decades have some people with disabilities fought their way out of institutions and integrated into local communities. So it’s understandable that most people do not have an understanding of disability beyond popular portrayals and distant observations of what it must be like to have a disability.
It is precisely for this reason that movies like Me Before You can have such a negative impact on people with disabilities. Popular films help shape the public psyche, reinforcing perceptions, influencing opinions and contributing to the notion that lives like mine are somehow less valuable, less capable. Though less dramatic, the reality is that people who use wheelchairs contribute to society in meaningful ways — and they don’t actually want to kill themselves.
Promoters of this movie will suggest that Me Before You is a story about personal choice and the right to die with dignity. Ms. Moyes, who also served as a screenwriter for the film, describes her motivation for writing this novel as being related to family members with disabilities and a news account of a paralyzed rugby player who sought out assisted suicide. Somehow, though, all of those explanations feel unsatisfying.
The sad reality is that people commit suicide every day. But all things being equal, would this story be as plausible if the main character, Will, had cancer? Even as we don colorful ribbons and race for a cure, would we so easily go along with his choice to kill himself because cancer so fundamentally changed his life? What about a person with diabetes who requires a strict diet, ambitious exercise regimen and multiple needle-pricking blood draws each day?
Those circumstances somehow seem tougher to swallow; they’re harder to justify. But a person who is “wheelchair bound” merely causes many people to solemnly nod their heads with an unspoken thought: I wouldn’t want to live like that either.
Yeah, more likely than not, you would. Aside from the fact that we’re living in the most advanced time in the history of the world to address some physical challenge, people are resilient. You are resilient and I am resilient and the young widow is resilient and the single parent is resilient and the person who just got laid off is resilient. People figure it out; they adapt and pivot and find a way. Disability doesn’t change that.
Even with some of the challenges that exist in terms of mobility, access to healthcare and barrier-free public accommodations, many times the most demanding and pervasive obstacle of disability is dealing with the perception of disability.
This truth bears repeating. The perception of disability is at the root of the majority of challenges people with disabilities encounter each day. Ramps can be built, technology can open new doors (literally and figuratively) and machines can even breathe for us, but to change the hearts and minds of those who perceive disability as some kind of pitiful, I’d-rather-be-dead circumstance is what places more limitations on us than anything.
And that’s the problem with Me Before You. At its core, it’s a story that embraces an idea that people with disabilities (and their families, friends, teachers, colleagues and lovers) have been pushing back against for decades; the idea that our lives are somehow less worth living.
So wherever you happen to be right this moment, can you just say these three words aloud: Fuck that idea. And after you say it, really believe it. The more you believe it and the more you help others come to believe it too, the less power romance novelists and media executives will have in influencing how I’m treated in the world.
This time, author Jojo Moyes and film studio Warner Bros simply got it wrong. They have become representatives of an antiquated idea that people with disabilities are inherently less capable; it is an idea that has little relevance to today’s technology-driven, forward thinking world. Ms. Moyes in particular has taken on a complex topic without the intellectual curiosity to fully understand the reality or the consequences of which she writes. More than a glimpse into the life of someone who uses a wheelchair, she merely promotes her perception of disability and highlights her lack of understanding about the human condition.
So if you must see this film in the coming days, please do so with the insight that it does not reflect the modern day disability experience. Better yet, put your money elsewhere. Help send a message to studio executives that perpetuating the idea that disabled lives are somehow less valuable is not the way to achieve box office success. Use your wallet to acknowledge that we can have as rich and full lives as anyone else.
The body does not define the individual.
And that brings us to the underlying question of Me Before You: what might make life worth living for someone who uses a wheelchair? Truly, it’s a difficult question to answer. Maybe cheese, if you really, really, really enjoy cheese. Yoga pants. A bold Cabernet. Amazon Prime Now. Laughter. The ocean breeze filling your lungs. Wanting to start a family. An ambition to contribute something meaningful to the world.
Oh, and love. The deepest human connection that makes you feel seen like you’ve never been seen before. Yeah, love is enough too — even for people with disabilities.