John Kelly: Movies Can Send A Dangerous Message About Suicide and Disability

As we have been covering since spring, here, here, here and here, disability rights advocates around the country, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand held protests against the movie “Me Before You” for its hateful message that some disabled people are better off dead.

John shares the same disability as the fictional Will in the movie, who has everything in his life he would want, except that he is a quadriplegic. So he kills himself, and leaves his girlfriend money so that she might “live boldly.”

After helping to organize four June protests against the movie, two at his local cinema, he wrote this opinion piece in July for his local neighborhood paper, the Fenway News. Now, as some legislatures are considering assisted suicide bills, it’s worth reminding people that cultural attitudes reflected in film can influence what people believe about disability and how people react to disability.

‘Me Before You’ Paints Dangerous Picture of Disabled Life

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.

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?”

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.

For the online version of this article, go to page 4 here. The article includes a photo entitled “Protestors gather outside the Fenway Regal Cinema” and depicting about 14 protesters, including at least 5 wheelchair users, gathered outside a theater with a banner and signs.

3 thoughts on “John Kelly: Movies Can Send A Dangerous Message About Suicide and Disability

  1. John Kelly speaks so eloquently and honestly about the brutal reality of a culture and a health-care system that treats patients as “product” for profit of the Medical Industrial Complex who, in reality, influences legislation and gets to UNILATERALLY determine that certain populations, the elderly, the disabled, the poor and mentally ill are better off dead sooner rather than later because this saves money and preserves profits of the big private Health Insurers and their stockholders. .

    Coincidentally? Our culture in our capitalistic Republic produces movies and arts and literature to influence the consciousness of the masses to sincerely believe that the disabled, the elderly, the mentally ill and depressed, the poor and imperfect are a burden that should be lifted from society and from families because these unfortunate persons are truly better off dead and should be brave and courageous enough to make themselves dead.

    Conveniently, the right to die of the citizen is settled in the law by SCOTUS but the Congress of the United States refuses to define “personhood” and clarify the right to live in terms of what medical care is delivered under one’s hospital health insurance policy.

    Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide are easy to sell to the masses. especially the younger generations, who like the idea of control over pain and certain death, not imminent for them, of course, that are provided by Physician Assisted Suicide laws and passive euthanasia

    The danger, however, to the vulnerable, the elderly and the disabled who are already targeted for savings in medical care for so called end-of-life care can be seen in unilateral DNR Code status that is often misused by physicians and hospitals to to RATION health care by hastening the death or shortening the life of these vulnerable populations without their informed consent and with impunity under United States Law.

    These vulnerable populations have been targeted for years to ensure the profits of the big private Health Insurers who are involved in the delivery of GOVERNMENT Medicare and Medicaid programs that NOW are getting rid of “fee for service” and embracing “managed care” and “managed death” reimbursement protocols under the Affordable Care Act.

    Is Hospice still an “elective” under Medicare law? AND Medicaid? There is a trial going on that is being conducted by CMS that involves original Medicare patients that if implemented into the Medicare law by the Congress n would mean that patients would be on BOTH Medicare and Hospice at the same time.

    Wouldn’t this be a means of open and legal UNILATERAL rationing of health care? Won’t John Kelly and others and the elderly, like my late husband who was on Medicare and Tricare for Life be in even greater danger.

    Hopefully, the intelligent, brave and courageous John Kelly will investigate the status of this CMS trial that would, if enacted into law, render HOSPICE to no longer be an option but the ONLY option under the law when reimbursement for life-saving and life-extending treatments are not reimbursed under the guidelines of the ACA.


  2. Hi,

    I have started a social media campaign called ‘No more wasted lives’ which aims to raise awareness into suicide prevention for patients who are dealing with mental health illnesses as the result from spinal cord injury. Part of our mission is to empower patients with SCI to seek new avenues of life post injury, to re-establish independence through many different facets including employment. What I love about your campaign is that offers hope to people living with disabilities that they still have purpose and can contribute to society. This is what my campaign is fundamentally based upon.

    I have also written a blog on the movie ‘me before you’ calling for its boycott, as it promotes the wrong message to people living with disabilities that suicide is a more nobler option then continuing to live out your life to the fullest.

    If you have a chance check out my blog! 🙂

  3. Hi,
    This is a wonderful article and so true! Thank you! “Me Before You” angered me as a person with Cerebral Palsy who has many friends who love their disabled lives. My anger at “Me Before You” was one of the reasons I made my film “A Stroke Of Endurance” about a college student with Cerebral Palsy who helps her professor adapt to a disability he develops due to a stroke when his class least expects it, to show the lives of the disabled as highly valuable and how with a little support from each other we can learn to adapt to disability together.

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