Me Before You: ableist promotion of death rather than disability

by Canberra writer and member of Lives Worth Living, Daniel Pask (pictured)

Disability activists from Melbourne and Canberra gathered to protest the message of the film, Me Before You at a screening in Melbourne.

Me Before You focusses on the lead character who becomes a quadriplegic after an accident. (Spoiler alert) The film closes with his suicide in the Dignitas death facility in Zurich.

Twenty people with disabilities, including bloggers Jax Jacki Brown and Carly Findlay, members of national group Lives Worth Living and Victorian DLP MP Rachel Carling-Jenkins, chanted "Rights, not tragedy", and "Kill the film, not the disabled guy". They distributed leaflets to potential moviegoers, explaining the damage done by negative portrayals of disability.

The protest, at the Hoyts movie theatre in The Jam Factory, Melbourne, was one of a number around Australia and globally highlighting the ableist attitudes perpetuated not only in Me Before You, but also in other films portraying people with disabilities.

Media coverage included reports in The Melbourne Age, SBS and on ABC radio.

Carly Findlay told The Age that cinema patrons are being encouraged to cry at what befalls the main character with a disability - played, like so many before him, by an able-bodied actor - but asked, "yet are they crying over the barriers and discrimination actually disabled people face in our everyday lives? Do they know about the low employment rate and poverty experienced by so many, and what are they doing to change that?"

Jacki Brown told the ABC that as a young person she had experienced depression and thoughts of suicide, and had a movie such as Me Before You been around then it "would have adversely affected my mental health and made me feel even more depressed".

"Because it would have said to me, well, you can't expect to live a full and rich life, you can't expect to have sexuality and have romance because you're a lesser person," she said.

I joined the protest along with my wife, Ute Schreiber, testifying to the impact the film's release has had on the disability community nationally.

The event represented a great advance in the diverse disability community as it mobilised to condemn not only ableist attitudes underlying the portrayal of people with disabilities in popular culture, but also the belief that assisted suicide or euthanasia are expected outcomes for people who acquire disabilities, and whose lives are thus deemed "unworthy" of pursuing.

In another protest over the film, Western Australian activist Samantha Connor and others rattled donation tins outside a screening. The tins were adorned with signs saying, "Send me to a Swiss suicide clinic". The activists actually received donations from unquestioning filmgoers, raising $65. They initially used the proceeds to go for drinks after their protest in Perth, then reimbursed the funds used, and donated all to ARBOR, a suicide bereavement service in Western Australia.

The Victorian protest followed others around the globe. American media and entertainment advocate Dominick Evans, who initiated protests in the US, helped set the tone for the Melbourne effort.

"We have seen in places where euthanasia is allowed that people who are not terminally ill but simply disabled are allowed to kill themselves, and that it is much easier to kill yourself then it is to get the support you need to live… if those supports are not available what are we supposed to do? Insurance would rather pay for us to kill ourselves, so because there is no real choice involved we are anti-euthanasia so long as it remains anti-disability", he said. People with disabilities' rights to health, housing, education and interaction within society continue to be sorely lacking, leading to feelings of hopelessness."

The Victorian Parliament is currently considering the Legal and Social Issues Committee's final report on its inquiry into end of life choices. The report recommends the Victorian government introduce a legal framework that allows for so-called "assisted dying". The report says it is intended to provide an option that can limit suffering at the end of life, not a way to end life for those who are otherwise not dying. However, in Belgium and elsewhere, cases to which the law has been applied have not remained static, with deaf-blind people, those with psychiatric illnesses, and people unhappy with the result of surgery being permitted to end their lives. The possibility of this occurring in Victoria remains open.

The report defines that those eligible to use the proposed law "must be suffering from a serious and incurable condition which is causing enduring and unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner the patient deems tolerable". This encompasses many conditions that people with disabilities experience, and with which they can indeed happily live, given the correct supports and conditions. There is no requirement in the proposed law that the condition be terminal, and the terms "enduring and unbearable" are wide open to interpretation. Whereas the reasons for suffering may be supposed to be physical, they may also largely be social and economic.

A scenario similar to that depicted in Me Before You is imaginable, if assisted suicide laws are enacted in Victoria.

The backlash against the film provoked questions regarding a link between stereotypical and clichéd portrayals of disability in popular culture, and support for euthanasia and assisted suicide. The medical model of disability is the one that most often underpins portrayal of people with disabilities in films, at the expense of the social, which acknowledges that disability is a social construct.

Films such as Me Before You help form negative perceptions of disability by placing characters with disabilities along side others deemed to be normal, for instance. Able-bodies characters' normality and capability are portrayed in deliberately stark contrast to the lives of people with disabilities. In cinema, normalcy is portrayed as something to be desired, and which people with disabilities either strive bravely towards or grieve for.

The international backlash against the film Me Before You shows that euthanasia and assisted suicide for people disabilities are fundamentally non-choices people make in unsupportive environments and societies. Hopefully, the backlash may also generate a push for more positive and honest representations of people with disabilities. A better cinematic portrayal of disability would show the goodness of our lives, our genuine worth and acceptance of our lifestyles. It would be grounded in fact about how people with disabilities live, and in authenticity. Yet all these are sorely lacking in Me Before You.

See also: Boycott Me Before You