If disability is pictured as a thermometer one sees at the very top of the mercury scale “Courage” and at the bottom “Cowardice”—a register of willfulness or mind over matter which represents disablement as being entirely a state of mind rather than physical or neurological reality. How often does one have to endure the slogan: “the only disability is a bad attitude?”
Quite often it turns out. Courage is an easy word to bandy about. Whenever the first “c” word is used in media representations of the disabled, it’s invidious twin is suggested, as if living a crippled life is a stark affair when you roll down the street or follow your dog. You’re either heroic or you’re some kind of attitudinal traitor, a Benedict Arnold of the spirit.
Of course temporarily abled people don’t live this way. They’re not heroic in the supermarket, not cowardly when they shake their fists at drivers in front of them. The emo-thermometer is reserved solely for the cripple. I’ve lived with this fictitiousness all my life and if you’re one of my crippled readers I’m certain you have too.
Lately there’s been much consternation and outrage among disabled activists and their extended supporters about the film “Me Before You” as it depicts a paralyzed man’s decision to end his life, not merely because his disability is insupportable, but because he doesn’t want to burden the abled woman who loves him. The film is creepy, inauthentic, and ugly. What interests me however is it’s emo-thermometer reading: “Courage” becomes “Cowardice” or subsumes it in a way that suggests “the only bad attitude is a disability”—a twist that’s chilling and should alarm even the most seasoned viewers of films and television programs. Living with disability is presented in “Me Before You” as a traitorous act, a betrayal of love.
Love is presented as light while disability is dark and overshadows life. Now, ahem, life itself doesn’t work this way. In life trains arrive and depart, sunlight strikes the telephone wires, groceries are purchased, lawns are clipped—which is to say, life, living it, is, as any bird will tell you, simply a matter of the daily worm. Moreover living is essentially the hard thing, dying is easy.
This is what’s so objectionable about the film. Dying is easy. Disabled life is presented as a bad choice, a bad attitude if you will. “Me Before You” turns the standard (and already crappy) disability emo-thermometer upside down.