By Sarah Camino, Guest Columnist
“Me Before You,” based on Jojo Moyes’s novel of the same name, is now available for streaming — tears, that is. Will Traynor, an independently wealthy man with quadriplegia, employs his uniquely endearing brand of bitterness and macabre preoccupation with his uninjured body to not only win over his caretaker Louisa and the audience, but those who administer death itself. However, the disturbing lack of reciprocity between the movie’s ethical dilemma regarding assisted suicide and the real experiences of disabled people reminds activists and critics of narrative’s influence in constructing disability.
In the interest of full disclosure: I am disabled, and I wish I could count on one hand the number of times I have heard, “If I had arthritis, I would kill myself,” but I would run out of swollen fingers and probably aching toes. Being told, especially as a young child, “death is preferable to your life,” makes a movie like “Me Before You” particularly hard to swallow.
Those who tell me they would commit suicide if they had my disability obviously do not wish me dead, nor do they probably think I would be better off so; but they do imply they could not “settle” for the life I lead. They imply that I am diminished, that this is in some sense unbearable, and that I can only make the best of a life of pain, rather than live, love and thrive in my body as much as anyone.
Even ignoring classist stereotypes attributing the idea of preserving Will’s life to Lou’s working-class, intellectually stunted family, while her journey to accept assisted suicide is seen as one of moral, social and intellectual enlightenment, “Me Before You” hides its assumption that the disabled body is useless and contemptible behind the apparent personal strength of the disabled character to leave it behind.
Such a message insults the disabled community because it valorizes the presupposition that disability is a physical and a personal problem surmounted by virtue and strength, while the nonconformity of an individual is culpable for his struggles, rather than society’s rigidity. When able-bodied people commit suicide, no one emphasizes their “choice” or their dignity. However, by treating the body of a disabled person as a villain, an obstacle or a worthless shell that the “normal” person inside should overcome, our culture fails to see his death as an equally profound loss.
The under-diagnosis of depression in people with disabilities contributes to this misconception. According to the Medical Journal of Australia, people with neurological disorders like Will’s experience a 20-55 percent rate of depression. Yet unfortunately, these mental health problems are rarely addressed and instead treated as a logical response to disability or secondary to physical symptoms.
In Moyes’ novel — notably the movie never substantially addresses Will’s mental health — a court confirms Will’s competency. No one finds any evidence of mental illness. Yet such evidence abounds, not only through his own statements, but others’ characterization. Lou describes him as “determined not to look anything like the man he had been” and “always a few steps removed from the world around him.” She confirms the myth of his deficient quality of life by saying “I realized that his condition was not just a matter of being stuck in that chair…but a never-ending litany of indignities.” For his part, Will assumes his personhood is irreconcilable with his new physical form and separates himself completely, saying he does not want happy memories “erased by the struggle.” “Me Before You” seems to say, and fans certainly concur in online comments, that disability changes a person beyond the point where they can have a fulfilling sense of self.
Simi Linton, a scholar with paraplegia, provides a contrasting disability perspective. She recalls in her memoir how anxious she was to be fitted for a wheelchair and regain a sense of mobility after her accident. She was not “stuck” as Lou so eloquently says. Furthermore, when Linton did feel alone or helpless, it was not the fault of her chair or her body, but the “unnavigable terrain.”
Thus, the issue in “Me Before You” is not that the event of the character’s death implies that his life is worth less, but rather in the environment that surrounds him in both his story and the response to it: an environment composed of detrimental stereotypes about disabled people, unnavigable terrain and inequity.
If the message of “Me Before You” is truly “live boldly, push yourself, and don’t settle,” then as a society we should push ourselves to better understand and represent disability, and we should acknowledge the disabled community should not settle in the meantime. Media featuring disabled characters ought to be forthcoming, but also ought to keep in mind that disabled people can be empowered by love, but cannot be disempowered by pain.