Opinion

People with disabilities do ‘live boldly’ — and they’re not better off dead

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There’s a good chance you’ve seen advertisements for a new movie that has been released. Imploring moviegoers to “live boldly,” “Me Before You” is a drama that is being billed as the next great romance.

In reality, it’s nothing more than a snuff film furthering the message that people are better dead than disabled. Based on a novel by British novelist Jojo Moyes, the plotline is being slammed by disability advocates who are calling for people to boycott the film.

In “Me Before You” (note: movie spoilers below), Louisa Clark is a quirky girl whose life has no direction. She’s hired by the mother of Will Traynor, a quadriplegic. Will had been able-bodied, active, successful, and happy… until he was in an accident, which left him wheelchair-ridden. He became withdrawn, depressed, and suicidal, wanting to visit Dignitas — the notorious assisted suicide clinic — to kill himself, which is why Traynor’s mother hired Louisa, in hopes of lifting him out of his funk and reminding him that life is worth living.

While at first the two hate each other, they eventually fall in love, with Will imploring Louisa to live life boldly and to live it well. Louisa takes Will on outings and on a vacation, and while he is happier with her than he ever has been before, he cannot bear to live life in a wheelchair. He chooses to kill himself at Dignitas, and leaves Louisa a large amount of money so that she can live her life to the fullest.

Rather than being seen as promoting a horrific message of “better dead than disabled”, the novel has received rave reviews from critics and readers alike. It was lauded by USA Today, The New York Times, O, the Oprah magazine, Good Housekeeping, and many more. The book was successful enough to spawn a sequel, titled “After You,” and a movie. The harmful messages being promoted are ignored or hushed up.

The disability community has refused to be silent, though. People have begun pushing back against the idea that it’s better for a man in a wheelchair to die than to live as a burden on those around him — and not only that, but that through his death, the life of his lover is improved.

One video asked if we would accept the same premise, but based on sex or race instead of disability, where a black man or a woman killed themselves because they felt their life had no meaning, and this decision was lauded.

The reviewer rightly noted that we would not tolerate a film or novel with this plot line; but somehow, it’s acceptable because the subject matter is people with disabilities, whose lives are seen as pitiable, meaningless, and without dignity. It’s even more angering considering the film is continually using the hashtag #LiveBoldly to promote it, when the disabled character chooses not to live at all.

This week, it was announced on the film’s Twitter account, @MeBeforeYou, that star Sam Claflin would be hosting a Twitter chat. After being inundated by messages from disability activists around the world, Claflin ended the chat 20 minutes early.

“Me Before You” contributes to the perception of people with disabilities as perpetual victims: whose lives are sad and empty, who are unable to live fulfilling lives, to have jobs and contribute to society, or to fall in love and have a family.

In this case, the character of Will serves one purpose, and that’s to prop up other characters and elicit an emotional response from readers. He doesn’t have any agency, any autonomy, any purpose other than to prop up the character of Louisa, and he does so by dying.

Considering that the author of the novel is not herself disabled (so why is it she felt that she had the authority to write about a disabled character choosing to kill himself to begin with?), this isn’t entirely surprising. People with disabilities, in Moyes’ world, are apparently nothing but one-dimensional stereotypes to be pitied and put out of their misery.

Assisted suicide has been growing steadily, and that’s in part because the idea of “death with dignity” has become so popular. The idea is that life that isn’t perfect — life with illness, like with disability — isn’t dignified. It’s a toxic notion that has spread like a disease, and it needs to be stopped. People with disabilities are not better off dead, and their lives are not meaningless or undignified. Their lives are valuable. And in no way should a book and movie that glorifies assisted suicide due to disability be celebrated.

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