Saturday, July 9, 2016

Worldwide Theatre Protest: 'Me Before You' Paints Dangerous Picture of Disabled Life


"It was heartening at our protests to receive
so much support from moviegoers and passersby."
Every evening for the past month, you’ve been able to watch me get euthanized at the Regal Fenway Stadium 13. Not to worry, it’s my choice, and neither fantastic wealth nor mutual love with a beautiful woman dissuade me.

This is the outline of the movie Me Before You, in which the audience gets plenty of laughs along the way as I—in the movie, my name is Will (Sam Claflin)—teach Louisa (Emilia Clarke), hired by my parents to cheer me up, to love life and soon enough, to love me. And when I/Will stay true to my desire to die, audiences have a good cry. Some theaters even supply patrons with Kleenex.

I use the first person because it’s my disability, shared with fictional Will, that is on the chopping block.

Our disability is iconic, a powerful eliciter of suicidal urgings. I was talking by telephone to a reporter a few months ago, trying to explain why disability rights groups oppose legalized assisted suicide, when she blurted out, “I know I would want it if I was ever paralyzed from the neck down.” She didn’t notice when I told her those words are used to describe me.

John Kelly and friends at Fenway Regal Cinemas
Some percentage of people who see me think they would rather be dead, and a few have told me so directly. People get to have their opinions, of course, but this prejudice is broadcast again and again. So we defend our lives.

In 2005, we protested the Oscar winner for Best Picture Million Dollar Baby, which along with Best Foreign Picture The Sea Inside presented disabled characters clamoring for death. I heard that some audiences cheered when Clint Eastwood’s Frankie murdered Hilary Swank’s Maggie.

Thanks to social media, this time around we’ve been able to organize multiple protests, across the US and in Britain and Australia, against the “better dead than disabled” message of Me Before You. Over the first four weekends of June, groups of disabled people and allies gathered outside the Regal Fenway 13 and Boston Common 19 to hand out flyers and hold a banner calling the film a “disability snuff movie.”

The fallback line for suicide proponents, which we heard occasionally during our actions, is “choice,” as in every (disabled) individual should have the right to choose. But the “choice” presented in Me Before
You belongs solely to the screenwriter and author of the book by the same name, JoJo Moyes. From observing a couple of disabled family members, Moyes said “qualityof-life was very high in my mind.” She told another interviewer, “At what point does the quality become meaningless? At what point do you give someone the right to decide for themselves?” 

John Kelly testifying at
legislative hearing
I object to being told that my life is “meaningless,” and think JoJo Moyes is a bigot. Unfortunately for me and disabled people, the bigot wrote a book that sold millions and got made into a Hollywood movie.

Moyes constructed everything in Will’s life to be as wonderful as could be—except for that quality-of-life-killing disability. Moyes has Will tell Louisa at the end of the book that his death will free her. “I don’t want you to be tied to me, to my hospital appointments, to the restrictions on my life. I don’t want you to miss out on all the things that someone else could give you.”

Will’s death is presented as a sacrifice of sorts, a death that gives life. Will leaves Louisa a lot of money so that she can go forth and “live boldly.” That phrase, used without irony, is the tag line of the movie. Living boldly, it seems, is for the nondisabled.

Like Will, I was depressed two years after my injury, but it was the peer support and solidarity of other disabled people that got me through that time. I shudder to think of newly injured people hearing about this movie. I want them to learn, as I did, that we all have the ability to adjust to circumstances as long as we are provided with love, support, and opportunities.

We disabled people proclaim that suicidal people, disabled or not, deserve the same suicide-prevention services as teenagers, the only target of most states’ anti-suicide programs.

It was heartening at our protests to receive so much support from moviegoers and passersby. People took pictures of us, decided to ditch the film after talking to us, and a few even passed out flyers with us. As one young couple said leaving the Fenway theaters, “you were right, it was terrible!”

John Kelly is a longtime East Fens resident and disability rights advocate. He founded Neighborhood Access Group (NAG) in 2000 and is now director of Second Thoughts Massachusetts: Disability Rights
Advocates against Assisted Suicide.