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I'm Disabled, & I Think 'Me Before You' Is a Harmful Representation For the Community


I wanted to like Me Before You. I really did. The idea that there could be a movie where one of the lead characters was disabled and fell in love—well, let's just say that doesn't happen often.

I went into the movie knowing all the facts. Although I'm an avid reader and I try to live by my "Read the book before seeing the movie" mantra, I was well aware of the controversy from the disabled community surrounding the book and its movie adaptation. I know better than to immerse myself in a book if it's just going to upset me. I love reading, and I'd really rather not waste my valuable reading time.

My friends wanted to see the movie Me Before You, and I've always been the kind of person who has to see something for myself to participate in the dialogue about it. Because it's a movie adaptation, I considered it a separate creative work from the book and wanted to see what it could offer.

Here are the facts: I'm disabled, but I don't use a mobility device, including a wheelchair. I do require some other kinds of assistive technology and accommodations, but I typically consider myself a cross between "invisibly" disabled and visibly disabled, depending on the situation. (If you've ever seen me try to ride a bike, walk up the stairs or wear high heels, chances are high you'll notice my disability.) There is a chance that I will need to use a mobility device down the line in my life. I'm also an ally to those in the disabled community who aren't able-bodied, many of whom are my close friends, and while I don't like to speak for them, I do like to speak with them and amplify their voices so they aren't ignored. 

Me Before You had potential. In fact, for about 15-20 minutes of the movie, I was laughing, and almost starting to like the film. The scene where Lou and Will ride around on his electric wheelchair is actually pretty cute, and fairly true to life if you've ever ridden on the lap of someone who was driving in an electric wheelchair, which I have. As long as both parties are comfortable, there's no doubt it could be super romantic. For a moment or two, I had my fists clenched, hoping the movie could take things where the book didn't. There are some great dry humor scenes about ableism, like the one where Lou's boyfriend tries to tell Will all about the exercises he could do to improve his condition—as if he's unaware of his own physical disability and hasn't tried his medical options yet. There are also deeper lessons the film could've delved into about class privilege and wealth, like when Lou calls Will out on the fact that before he was disabled, he would never have looked twice at a girl like her, whom she self-describes as "one of the invisibles." Will even admits to this. The movie had the opportunity to make a really stellar point about the intersections between class privilege and abled privilege, but it chose to back away from the topic too quickly before the audience really had time to think about this.

As a disabled person, I was so disappointed in this movie. It had the chance to take a premise that was ripe with complicated emotions and opportunity for character growth and not utilize it. Yes, I do realize the movie was adapted from a book. But it's just that—an adaptation, and not a direct copy. So many movies take a good premise and find ways to make it even better. If you've ever read the Twilight series and watched the movies, you'll notice that New Moon is so much more exciting and enjoyable than the book, because the movie adapation worked with the source material and tried to improve it for the big screen. (I really hate Twilight, but even I have to admit the second movie improved on its literary counterpart.)

Me Before You doesn't do this. It doesn't turn tropes on their heads and offer a really different, refreshing take on romance and disability, all of which it could've done. Instead, the audience is reminded over and over again about all the things Will can't do anymore, how much he's missing out on, how much worse his life is now that he's disabled. 

I'm not saying life isn't difficult for disabled people. I can guarantee you it is. Will's struggles with suicide and depression are all-too-common in the disabled community, and so is the idea that your friends and caretakers will legitimately think, "If I were like you, I'd want to be dead." No one's ever explictly told me they'd rather be dead than have my disability, but there have been times it was certainly implied, like when I was trying to learn how to walk up the stairs in second grade and all the other kids would push me out of the way so I couldn't hold the handrails. There were many times that my occupational and physical therapists gave me what I thought of as "The Look," which was the look of pity, of sadness about the things I'd never do. Being disabled does often mean being left out, either because something isn't physically accessible or because you know that, with your disability, you can't do it. I've never gone on a bike ride with friends in my entire life, and I spent a lot of my childhood crying to my mom, who was also disabled, about it.

But the movie could have explored Will's mental health struggles with more of a focus on him, rather than on Lou and the audience. We're supposed to pity Will, and want Lou to succeed in her plans to change his mind, but we're never supposed to think too hard about why he's upset, about how things like traveling to Paris and going to a horse race aren't properly physically accessible for wheelchairs. This isn't a problem with Will as a person. It's a problem with our ableist society, and the way we take disabled people into account when we're building spaces and planning events. I can't tell you how many times I've traveled with disabled friends, having asked beforehand, "Is this space accessible?" and been told yes, only to find out that, no, they actually don't have an accessible bathroom, or they only allow wheelchair users to sit with one friend in the accessible seating, as if disabled people can't possibly have more than one friend with them. 

Many of my disabled friends have had Will's outlook. I've had Will's outlook. I was born disabled, unlike Will, so I grew up knowing that, to some degree, I'd need to be taken care of for the rest of my life. That I'd have to fight to get accommodations. That I'd have to sit one out when friends made plans I couldn't physically join them in. That I might need personal care assistants, or a service dog, or that I might have to ask to sit in an accessible seat on the train, getting glared at for asking because I'm young and don't yet use a mobility device. 

This movie had a chance to explore that, to make Will a person, to give him emotions and allow him to be angry, depressed, even suicidal without turning him into just a prop for Lou's personal growth. The movie's tagline even says, "Live boldy. Just live," although Will chooses not to. I assure you, not one disabled person who saw that movie missed the irony of that tagline. Just live—but not if you're disabled. If you're disabled, you're actually better off dead. 

How could the movie have improved? One simple way: they should have had a disabled person actually watch the film or read the script before moving forward. They should have asked wheelchair users, preferably those in similar situations to Will's, what they thought about it before going forward. If they'd taken this simple step, it could have been a very nuanced, complicated romance about how we learn to love one another despite our flaws. Is Will's flaw that he's a wheelchair user, and needs help being fed? No. His flaw is that he refuses to let anyone else in, and that he's built up walls around himself emotionally. Lou's flaw is that she doesn't know how to look after herself, and is constantly thinking only of others' needs. When the two come together, Will pushes Lou to be selfish sometimes, and Lou pushes Will to let others in and see him for who he is. That's actually a pretty common plot for a romance movie. Will is basically every other emotionally closed-off male romantic lead, only he uses a wheelchair to get around.

What's different about this movie is that, despite having fairly common tropes for how the two get involved and what their flaws are, it actually had the potentially to be a diverse and thoughtful commentary on society. Lou is portrayed as essentially dirt poor, and her family is shown struggling to get by. Will is so rich that his family owns a castle, and he's a quadriplegic who uses a wheelchair. If the movie had only let Will be a character, instead of a plot device, it would've been a win on some many levels. 

It isn't enough to just hope that, for once, a disabled character will be allowed to have real feelings and reactions. I've sat in movie theaters and watched television shows my entire life, rarely ever seeing a character who represented what it's like to be disabled beyond being there as a trope, a source of pity or inspiration, or in the background. Predictably, in every action or fantasy movie, I sit there and watch all the fight scenes, thinking, "If my life were The Hunger Games series, I'd be the first to die." In every romance, I never see someone who represents me or anyone else in the disabled community.

What message does this send? It sends the same message that Me Before You sends: that if you're disabled, your life isn't worth it. That if you can't go everywhere without accommodations, that if you ever need help physically getting around or performing a task, your life isn't worth it. That if you have moments of severe pain and are ever confined to bedrest, your life isn't worth it. That if you're regularly in the hospital, and will have several surgeries over the course of your life, your life isn't worth it. That if your significant other has to help feed you, your life isn't worth it. 

That may seem dramatic, but I'll tell you this. When Will's scars from his original suicide attempt were first shown, I almost started crying. Like so many disabled people around me, I've considered ending my own life because of the difficulty it places on my friends and family, and on my significant other, who has to help me with a lot of physical tasks on a daily basis. So many of my disabled friends have tried to die by suicide as well. Seeing Will's scars brought me back to that night when, surrounded by a group of disabled friends, we were all talking about our lowest points, the times when we'd really thought about if it was worth it anymore. And I had a flutter of hope that the movie might give us this, that Will might become a character, that he could be the disabled representation we so badly need in a major motion picture. 

And then the movie crushed my hopes, and ran them over and over again with an electric wheelchair—like it was saying, "Live boldly, but not if you're disabled." 

We can't be silenced when it comes to the problematic representation that's happened here. As a community, we need to stand together with our allies and say that this is wrong. Life as a disabled person may be difficult at times, but it's worth living. And if we're going to tell the stories of what it's like to live as a disabled person, difficulties and all, we should at the very least have disabled people weigh in on the narrative, if not write it themselves. Because we're here, and we're not dead, and we deserve to tell the world that we do live boldly.

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