“Live Boldly” is the studio tagline for a romantic summer drama called Me Before You. But critics say the film fails to live up to its inspirational billing. And Vermonters with disabilities have joined with their peers across the country in condemning the movie for its depiction of a protagonist who loses the use of his arms and legs.
Forty-five minutes before a recent showing of Me Before You, about a dozen Vermonters lined up on the sidewalk outside the Majestic 10 movie theater in Williston to register their concern.
The film has grossed more than $30 million at the box office so far. And these protesters, three of whom arrived via wheelchair, are concerned about the message movie-goers might be leaving with.
“I think it just enforces a stereotype that people with disabilities are unhappy and miserable, and that it’s better to die, says Nate Besio, a Colchester resident who uses a wheelchair.
Like the main character in Me Before You, Besio suffered a high spinal cord injury. Unlike the dashing movie hero, who – spoiler alert – opts to kill himself rather than go on, Besio is loving life.
“You have to say to yourself, ‘You know, I can do things I’ve always wanted to do.’ The question is how to do it?” Besio says.
Besio went to college, got married and landed a full-time job as a peer advocate at the Vermont Center for Independent Living, all while living with his disability.
“And how you have to do it becomes a little bit more complicated,” Besio says. “But I never stopped having those goals.”
Besio and other people thriving with disabilities say they’re not really exceptional in that regard. And they say that’s what makes the latest disability narrative from Hollywood so disturbing.
“I really thought that they missed an opportunity to portray what the reality of is about being in this situation,” says Scott Goyette, who demonstrated outside the Majestic in his motorized wheelchair.
Goyette has a job. He skis. He scuba dives. He coaches a soccer team.
Goyette says he’s incredibly thankful for the life he’s living. And he says the impact of disability stereotypes is far more detrimental than any of the physical hurdles he has to clear every day.
“If people limit the world that they think you live in, it can have an impact on what your own possibilities are,” Goyette says.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, executive director of RespectAbility, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for individual with disabilities nationwide, says that impact “cannot be overestimated.”
Mizrahi says there are 22 million working-age people with disabilities in the country.
“But only one in three of them has a job … because people devalue them and don’t see their abilities,” Mizrahi says.
Mizrahi says it’s media narratives that perpetuate the idea that people with disabilities are somehow less competent or capable than their able-bodied counterparts.
Me Before You isn’t the first major movie to glamorize the suicide of a main character who suffers a debilitating injury. In the Academy Award-winning Million Dollar Baby, the female protagonist, a champion boxer, convinces her trainer to kill her after being paralyzed from the neck down.
Nate Besio, meanwhile, says he's been happily married for nine years. "My wife’s able-bodied. She met me while I was disabled, and we have a normal marriage. And I’ve never seen anything released that tells that story,” he says.
Until mass media conveys that life is as satisfying and fulfilling for people with disabilities as it is for people without them, advocates say they’ll continue to run into the obstacles created by those stereotypes.
“We’re either villains, people that need to be cured, or people to be pitied,” says Ericka Reil, a peer advocate counselor at the Vermont Center for Independent Living.
Reil has a teenage son with autism.
“And the role models that are currently being put out in the world by the media and the mass media are not the role models I would choose for my son, and so I have to start making those role models myself,” Reil says.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi says social media can be a powerful tool for people looking to alter the disability narratives spun by Hollywood. And she says people who want powerful, inspiring characters need to make their online voices heard.