This isn’t going to be a long blog post (I hope). It’s one of these posts that I’m writing solely to motivate myself to do a bit of writing, and to unblock my brain (apparently, ‘writer’s block’ does not exist; I attest otherwise).
There’s been a bit of a shitstorm online over the last few days about the film, Me Before You, which is based on a novel of the same name by Jojo Moyes. Disability Activists have been blogging furiously, slamming the (mis)representation of disability both in the novel and the film. The disabled character, Will, has chosen to avail of assisted suicide in Switzerland because now that he is paralysed following a motorbike accident, he doesn’t think that life is worth living. And *spoiler alert*, that’s exactly what he does at the end of the novel.
Is it wrong that I want to slap a fictional character across the face and say, ‘Cop the f**k on. You have to use a wheelchair, but you’re not the only wheelchair user in the world. You’re only in your twenties. Ah here?’ Is it wrong to want to slap the other characters for not slapping him across the face?
Over the last few days I’ve read Extraordinary Lives, a book compiled and edited by the Irish Wheelchair Association’s Joanna Marsden (who also edits the Spokeout magazine, a quarterly publication issued by the IWA), which paints some interesting pictures of disability. All of these stories have one thing in common: each person strives to be integrated into a society which sees them as deviant. They challenged stereotypical notions of being disabled and set about removing barriers to integration. They excel, not in spite of their ‘impairments’, but in spite of a society that doesn’t always think they are capable. Many of these people were instrumental in advancing the Independent Living Movement in Ireland.
I’ve been an active member of the Independent Living Movement for almost ten years now, and I worked in the area of Independent Living for nearly seven of those. During this time I saw first hand my fellow disabled activists protesting against cutbacks to Personal Assistant Services. I witnessed the introduction of medical card charges, the cutting of the Household Benefit Package, the scrapping of the Christmas Bonus.
I also watched what was going on in the UK, and what continues to happen: disabled people being refused their Disabled Living Allowance (DLA) because they weren’t ‘disabled’ enough to qualify; people being forced onto Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) after being told they were ‘fit for work’ (even though it has transpired that some of these claimants died afterwards either from terminal illnesses or suicide); disabled people being portrayed as ‘scroungers’ because of the benefits they claim,
leaving them to become victims of hate crime.
It has been hinted that Leo Varadkar is going to bring in a similar system over here, despite the negative press it has received in the UK. Well, good luck to you Leo. I know of so many disabled people who have openly declared themselves as being available for work, and yet still struggle to secure paid employment. I know others who can’t afford to work because they will lose their medical card, making earning money a futile exercise. And you can launch as many disabled employment schemes as you like, but what we really want is to be accommodated in a ‘normal’ working environment, and recognised for our skills rather than offered a tokenistic job for the sake of massaging the unemployment figures. (Many disabled people don’t show up on the live register because they are on Disability Allowance not Unemployment Benefit).
So going back to Me Before You. On one hand it is just a story written by an author, doing her job as a storyteller, telling the story of her characters, one of whom just so happens to have a spinal cord injury. Fair enough. On the other hand, the reaction to it from the disabled community should highlight how frustrated many of us are as being portrayed by Hollywood as hapless victims with nothing real or tangible to offer those around us. it’s time for us to stand up and show that it’s not that we are not worthy to live in society but rather that society must adapt and accommodate not only our physical needs, but our emotional and social ones too. We must teach people that our impairments do not make us tragic, and to be comfortable around disability.
Me Before You was written by a non-disabled author. Let’s not be afraid to write our own story.
* I feel I should point out that I use the word ‘disabled’ to denote people who are disabled by the society they live in, not their individual impairments.