Demanding better disability stories

“Rights, not tragedy!”

“Assistance to live, not assistance to die!”

These were some of the chants of around 30 disability rights protesters outside the Embassy’s preview screening of Me Before You on Wednesday night. The rally was one of many around the world calling for a boycott of the Hollywood romance, a film that plays on the tired trope that disabled people lead tragic lives and are burdens on society. Protest organisers Esther Woodbury and Paula Booth call it as it is, “offensive, clichéd bullshit, which has denied disabled people the opportunity to tell their own stories to mainstream audiences”. This repetitive stigmatising of disability by the media is incredibly damaging. It helps to reinforce the view that disability should be avoided at all costs, and the abhorrent idea that disabled people are better off being killed. Internationally, many disabled people are furious at the release of yet another stereotypical, offensive, ableist story. As Robyn Hunt of Arts Access Advocates puts it, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. On Wednesday night in Wellington, some of that anger was expressed. Protesters held placards and a banner with slogans such as:

“Demand Better Disability Stories. #survivethemovie #getlaid #notyourinspirationporn”

“#Spoiler. Hollywood kills Will because he is disabled; Will doesn’t get laid.”

The references are to the film’s male lead, Will, a person with quadriplegia who chooses death rather than live with his disability. Booth and Woodbury explain their frustration, “for once when we do get a disabled romantic lead, he doesn’t get to have sex with the person he’s fallen in love with, let alone survive the movie.” The film is based on a book of the same name, which, as Dan Harvey explains, gets basic facts about quadriplegia completely wrong. Just as the book is written by someone whose research didn’t include talking to a single person with quadriplegia, the film is made by non-disabled filmmakers as a tearjerker for profit. Despite having a character with quadriplegia in a lead role, the producers chose to cast a non-disabled actor. This not only denies work opportunities for disabled actors, it denies the opportunity for their insight into how disabled characters could be more realistically portrayed.

The real lives of disabled people are seldom told on screen; lives that still have joy and purpose, despite the fact that most disabled people are on low incomes, and have to fight for accessibility in all areas of society. Instead, as Booth and Woodbury put it, Me Before You is about “a disabled man who has all the resources and disability supports he could want, and who can afford to go away on fancy holidays. Most disabled people could never dream of those kinds of opportunities, and yet we still manage to find enough happiness and purpose in life.” Not only does this reinforce prejudice in the minds of those without disabilities, it can be demoralising for those with them. “To see someone who lives such a flash lifestyle still want to die is really gutting,” says Booth in her interview with Radio New Zealand.

Angry, frustrated, and refusing to be demoralised, disabled people are demanding change: No more tragic bullshit!

Photo credit: Samuel Lister