• The constant depiction of disability in film is tiresome, argues advocate Carly Findlay (right), with writer Jax Jacki Brown. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Hollywood tear-jerker Me Before You fails to show that people with disability are not defined by grief.
Carly Findlay

17 Jun 2016 - 10:45 AM  UPDATED 17 Jun 2016 - 10:45 AM

Many people with disabilities are upset about the film Me Before You, released in Australia this week. Protests were held in Melbourne and Perth - activists peacefully explained why the film is problematic. I was one of those protesters. 

The film, based on JoJo Moyes’ 2012 best-selling novel, is the story of Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), a 35-year-old man who becomes a quadriplegic, and Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke), a-26-year old woman who admits to not having many exciting hobbies.

Louisa takes a job caring for Will – who became a quadriplegic due to a pedestrian accident. Will was a successful investment broker, and gave that up since the accident. He wants to end his life in six months, and Louisa tries to show him that life is worth living. But falling in love with Louisa is not enough to make him want to live. He can't see a good life being disabled. 

This film has been marketed as a love story, but its themes are dark. Community radio presenter and performer, Jarrod Marrinon protested the film with me in Melbourne last night. "This is a movie that makes romance out of the systemic view of disabled people are not worthy of being partners, sons or just members of society", he says. 

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While there are people who validly experience grief, internalised ableism and depression because of their disability, that’s not the story for everyone. 

Once again the film industry has portrayed disability as a tragedy. As a proud disabled woman, I was disappointed to see yet another narrative of a disabled character being cast as a tragedy, and the able-bodied character cast as a hero. For once, I'd like to see the whole disabled person's life reflected - joy, sadness, pride, love, difficulty and all the emotions in between. 

Eliza Masterson has a congenital heart condition. She also wants to see a balanced representation of people with disabilities in film. "While I agree this story is a horrible depiction of a person disability, it is still a reality for someone and we don't need to erase it", she says.

"We need a more diverse picture of disability in film and media - don't just show the ones who want to die, or the ones who fall in love and then die anyway. Show the ones that overcome it and live. Show all shades and sides of it, because we are not all the same, our stories are not the same. I think that's what we need."

I also found the need to cast a non-disabled actor in a disabled role problematic. This role could have been given to a disabled actor with lived experience. I don’t believe ‘blacking up’ is acceptable, and nor is ‘cripping up’. However, others have told me they think it was easiest for a non-disabled actor to play Will, especially for the scenes prior to his accident. Yet Will was a quadriplegic for most of the movie – there were only two scenes where he wasn’t disabled.

The book and the film covers the complex of issue of assisted suicide, which surprisingly comes under a PG rating. The only reason Will wants to end his life is because of his acquired disability. He cannot see a good life living with it. Writer, Jax Jacki Brown said "When able bodied people talk about suicide, they encourage suicide prevention. When disabled people talk about suicide, it's legislated so we can do it."

 This is real life for actually disabled people. And the audience laughed. It was very awkward.

I saw Me Before You at an advanced screening on Wednesday. The audience was young and I expect keen for a light-hearted love story. The thing that I wasn’t prepared for before watching the film was the audience’s reaction. I thought they would sob (I heard a few sniffles) but I didn’t expect laughter at some of Will’s disabled traits and the inaccessibility he faced. At the start of the movie, Will put on a voice – a disabled sounding voice – and people laughed. They also laughed at a frustrated moment of inaccessibility, Will being fed by Louisa and at any affection shown towards him. This is real life for actually disabled people. And the audience laughed. It was very awkward.

The able gaze was also felt by my film buddy Kath - who, in addition to being disturbed by the laughing, felt eyes on her as she exited the cinema. Kath, a media producer, is a transverse congenital amputee, and uses a motorised scooter. I ran off for my train, she waved me on, I felt terrible when she told me how hard it was getting on her scooter "in front of all the weepers who lingered to gather their hankies". 

"I felt pity, or maybe it was repulsion, as I clambered on, scootered around and left. Disgusting. That was the worst part of the whole [movie] experience. 

"I felt this kind of shame about being me I haven't felt for decades. I didn't realise it would have that effect on me. I'm pretty hardened, you know, but it did. You being there wouldn't have changed it."

It's important for disability to be depicted in film. And it is important we see the struggle disabled people face. But the constant depiction of disability is tiresome. Social media commentary about the film - on my Facebook even - shows low expectations of people with disabilities, even telling us actually disabled people that it's just a film, that our anger is misplaced, relax! This attempted silencing can be as difficult to swallow as the film itself. 

Jarrod Marrinon agrees. "Although I'm hopeful my friends and family have a better idea of what life is like for me and people with disabilities I fear that this (the film) will enforced the society views of disability being something that is something to be pitied and unattractive and people who have it, worthless." 

Me Before You is in cinemas now. 

If you need to talk to someone after reading this post, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Carly Findlay is a writer, speaker, performer and appearance activist. 

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