Brittany Déjean is a 2014 Echoing Green Fellow and the founder and executive director of AbleThrive. AbleThrive delivers solutions and resources to families with disabilities and shares narratives that challenge uninformed or limiting perceptions of disability. Follow AbleThrive on Facebook and Twitter.
(Warning: Spoiler alerts ahead!)
Anyone can decide to take their life, but when we see suicide in the media, the typical reactions are sadness, tragedy, grief, and feeling a life was taken too soon. We start movements to combat suicide. We discuss issues of mental health. We mourn the losses of those not able to be saved, those who couldn't be convinced that they were valuable.
Now consider Me Before You. Will, a wealthy businessman who was paralyzed in an accident, falls in love with his beautiful, working class caregiver. The smiles, warmth, and connection are the makings of an epic love story, but Will's decision that his life is not worth living and subsequent suicide do not elicit the typical reactions.
All of a sudden, it becomes acceptable. Even more dangerously, his "noble" gesture is for Louisa's benefit. "I don't want you to miss all the things that someone else can give you," he says. This perpetuates the misconception that people with disabilities are less valuable humans, incapable of being a partner and living a meaningful life.
This trickles into our social consciousness, deepening negative stereotypes that fuel stigma and marginalization.
In the film, Will is not terminally ill. His disability is not a death sentence, and he could have a very happy life with Louisa if he wanted to. His life isn't over, it's just different.
Film and television impact what we believe is normal.
Have you ever felt subjected to or judged based on stereotypes depicted in Hollywood films? There's a reason there are movements to diversify Hollywood, for there to be representation and inclusion.
When disability appears in mainstream media, we see over and over again narratives based on pity, inability, and inadequacy that reinforce the myth that living with a disability is a subpar existence. We interpret that myth to mean that if you can't "fix" the person, they're better off dead. Over time audiences begin to see that as the normal for someone with a disability.
Thankfully we didn't see this movie before my dad broke his neck in a car accident.
My dad's rehabilitation hospital exposed us to the potential to live a meaningful life in a wheelchair. Seventeen years later, my dad lives independently and works full-time as an engineer. He's also a loving and active husband and father.
Would my dad have done me a favor if he committed suicide instead?
My 9-year-old brother was killed in that same car accident. There is a big difference between death and disability. But there are still people who tell me they'd rather be dead than live like my dad.
Unfortunately, not everyone is exposed to what's possible with a disability like my family was. I envision and work for a day where the norm for disability is someone like my dad or millions of others living well around the world. However, so long as their narratives remain invisible to the public eye and fail to counter the stories of sadness, misery, and suicide, disability will continue to be viewed as a death sentence.
If disability becomes a part of your family's life, wouldn't you hope to be exposed to diverse and optimistic options for a happy future? I know many people who would give anything for the support Will had behind him. He was wealthy, had a caring family, a caregiver, a home, and the love of his life, yet even with all that in place, he still chose death.
Rather than accept people are better off dead, we should address the barriers that make living well with a disability disproportionately difficult.
The world was not made with people with disabilities in mind: buildings are not reliably accessible; antiquated policies complicate access to education and employment; and healthcare bankrupts families who seek essential medical equipment and care. One-in-four 20-year-olds living in the United States today will be disabled by the time they retire and there are currently over 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide. These issues deserve attention.
How many more people will ignore these issues because they believe these lives are not worth living?
In the film, Will tells Louisa: "In your life, it is actually your duty to live it as fully as possible." They even made #liveboldly the film's official hashtag. This is great advice and a great mantra, but why does it apply to Louisa and not Will? How can you #liveboldly if you're already dead?
Check out these seven men and women who live up to the hashtag and pick one to share on your social media channels.
Let's get attention for the narratives that are unrepresented in mainstream media to redefine what it means to live with a disability. And if you see this movie, just keep this perspective in mind: Life isn't always easy, but it's certainly worth living.
This article is part of a series that showcases emerging leaders' voices on a variety of issues related to social change. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the authors. Echoing Green provides these leaders and social entrepreneurs with a two-year Fellowship, seed-stage funding, and strategic support. Learn more at echoinggreen.org.