This post is discussing the book and film 'Me Before You' and contains spoilers about the ending.
Within a large majority of the disability community, there is outrage at this new film based on Jojo Moyes' bestselling romantic novel. Why? Because it reinforces the stereotypical belief that you are better off not living than being disabled.
The book and film show the journey of Will who is a quadriplegic following a motorcycle accident and Louisa, Will's carer (or the more accurate term Personal Assistant) who is basically a guard to prevent Will killing himself. Of course, romance blossoms between the two but ultimately, Will still decides to go to Dignitas and end his life.
There is much to contest in the plot and storyline. But the controversy stems from the tragic assisted suicide ending. This gives dangerous signals to young disabled people and non-disabled people alike, that life is not worth living if you are disabled. Society is split in two on this topic and it is rare to meet someone who believes or at least acknowledges both sides.
As a quick low down:
On the pro assisted suicide viewpoint, the argument is pretty simple. Non-disabled people are allowed to end their lives so why shouldn't disabled people have the same right?
On the opposing viewpoint, the arguments are a little more complex. By legalising assisted suicide, you run the risk of disabled people giving into social pressure that they are a burden and should end their life.
To write a proper discussion on the assisted suicide part of this film would amount to an essay so I'm going to skip over that, as actually, I have more issues with the storyline than just the ending.
On reading an interview with the author, Jojo Moyes, there are two quotes that stand out:
'I have a child who was born deaf, so as a mother of a disabled child myself, one of the things I found most frustrating when he was small was not his disability, to which we adapted very quickly. Very quickly it becomes the least interesting thing about someone you love. It was other people's attitudes.'
Moyes finds people's attitudes "frustrating", yet her book and subsequent film has provided a walking (no pun intended) talking cliché for disability. A rich white handsome man loses all when he becomes paralysed. He finds love but nothing is enough to stop him choosing to end his life. His life is just too awful to carry on.
As Vanessa Thorpe writes in the Guardian, the serious central issue of the film is: 'what might make life worth living if you are confined to a wheelchair?' And apparently, it's nothing. Ultimately, this is why he chooses (assisted) suicide.
'Not quadriplegics. The thing that really informed it was a member of my family who suffers from a progressive disease. I have been involved in feeding her, taking her out, and that kind of thing.'
This was Jojo Moyes' response to being asked whether she consulted anyone who was actually a quadriplegic before writing the book. Progressive illness is vastly different to quadriplegia, even if it may result in a similar outcome.
When I read that quote, I just thought 'could Moyes get anymore patronising?' Does she want a medal for feeding and taking the poor helpless lady out into the community? It is this quote that makes me think she should not be writing a book portraying the "hard" life of a disabled man. She just doesn't get disability.
That's my complaint with the book. To move onto the film adaptation. Where do I start?
Well firstly, yet again Hollywood has decided against using an actual disabled actor and has chosen to 'crip-up' Sam Claflin. Some films may require the use of a non-disabled actor if, like in The Theory of Everything, it tracks the progression of disability or shows a before/after of a life-changing accident. But in this story, there is no good reason to not use a disabled actor. Unless of course, they tried but no disabled actor would sign up to be in such an awful film which in no way represents them as a person.
Another issue is with the director, Thea Sharrock. She was recently interviewed and said:
'My nephew is in a wheelchair and I hope he will be pleased to see this shown in a way that does not make audiences too uncomfortable. If we had shown Will being taken in and out of his chair, or put in a hoist over a bath, the impression we would give is of difficulty. I wanted to make it more normal.'
More normal? Transferring in and out of a chair, hoisted into the bath? That is normal. That is life for many disabled people, including me. Am I ashamed of that? Of course not, it's my life and it is my normal.
I work at Muscular Dystrophy UK's Trailblazers, a network of young disabled campaigners who fight social injustice and for equal opportunities. Trailblazers are currently investigating the media representation of disabled people and this film is the epitome of all that is wrong with much of the media industry today. It doesn't use a disabled actor; it doesn't show the realisms of day-to-day living as a disabled person; and it reinforces the notion that you're better dead than disabled.
Will could have lived a great life; he had the support of his family, someone who loved him, and enough money to experience all he wanted. But it wasn't enough in the eyes of the author and filmmakers - because Will is disabled.
Lauren West is a Campaigns Officer at Muscular Dystrophy UK's Trailblazers, a network of young disabled people who campaign to remove the barriers that stop them from living full and independent lives.