Content warning: suicide, murder
Is it better to be dead than disabled? It might seem a shocking question, but the idea that death is better than disability is one that is promoted all around us, from fictional stories to news reports. It’s certainly a question that journalists grappled with when (clearly) struggling to write about Stephen Hawking’s recent death, in media coverage that can best be described as an “ableist garbage fire.”
It seemed journalists could not help themselves from focusing on Hawking’s disability instead of his work, emphasising that he “overcame” or worked “in spite of”, not with, disability. If they weren’t marvelling at the fact that someone could be successful and disabled, they were reinforcing harmful ableist tropes about Hawking being “freed” from his disability in death, accompanied by apparently touching cartoons of him walking away from his chair, towards the stars.
Putting aside the fact that Hawking did not believe in an afterlife, this depiction offends on the grounds of reinforcing two tired old tropes about disability: that mobility devices are restrictive, and that disability is a fate worse than, and escaped only by, death. These tropes will be no news to disabled people, who spend a lifetime encountering offensively well-meaning comments about wheelchairs being a burden, disability a (metaphorical) death sentence, and cheery quips from able-bodied people about how they couldn’t possibly live like us and would just kill themselves if they were disabled (yes, this happens).
The media coverage of Hawking’s death is equally ignorant and well-intentioned, but only serves to reinforce these tropes and make the lives of disabled people that much harder. Disabled people spend a great deal of time and energy trying to convince others that our lives have value, and we deserve equal participation in society (whether that means using mobility devices, improving public accessibility, or greater funding for services). What we don’t need is to further the implication that our lives and works mean nothing unless we are “freed” from disability.
Another example which is far more blatant in its promotion of eugenics is the movie Me Before You. This unfortunately popular film tells a touching “love story” about a woman who helps a man in a wheelchair kill himself so she can run off with his money. Romantic, no?
Slotting comfortably into the genre of “disability snuff films”, Me Before You reinforces a remarkable number of stereotypes about disability. The main character is portrayed as a burden who is so desexualised this apparently “romantic” movie had barely a kiss between its star-crossed leads, and the value of able-bodied lives above disabled ones is made eminently clear in the disturbing finale.
Why their puzzled faces? After all – no offence was meant. Why don’t you get our anger? You kill off the hero because he’s disabled and churn out repetitive cliches about disabled lives that has me reaching for my specially adapted axe. This is just weeks after the Invictus Games and a few months before the Paralympics. Wait – aren’t some of those participants “horribly paralysed”? The messages are horribly mixed. – Penny Pepper, The Guardian
Sam Clafin, an able-bodied actor, plays his quadriplegic character with all the nuance of someone who has never bothered to talk to a disabled person in their life. In fact, the actors are able-bodied, the author of the book upon which the movie is based is able-bodied* and deliberately ignorant of criticism from the disabled community, and the only person with a disability publicly associated with the film, a man whose autobiographical account of quadriplegia which was used in it without his consent, is “angry” about it.
It seems Me Before You serves little purpose other than to make able-bodied people feel better about their lives by comparison, while promoting a dangerous message of self-harm to already at-risk individuals.
Still not convinced? How about media portrayal of parents who murder their autistic (or otherwise disabled children) as tragic figures who had no other choice. Of course, it is a tragedy when a child is killed, but I would argue that it is not an inevitable-yet-sort-of-sad outcome of having a disabled child.
To untangle ableism in news reports, try to remove the disability from the story and then determine if there is still a story worth telling. If a parent murdered an able-bodied child in cold blood, do you think they would still be portrayed sympathetically? Do you think any other parent who got so sick of their children they decided to kill them would be seen as objects of pity?
There is a lot to discuss about the lack of societal support for parents of children with disabilities – more than I have room to go into today. But suffice to say that the deliberate deaths of disabled children would not be reported as a “mercy killing” were we already not so accustomed to the idea that death is better than disability.
Disabled people experience violence against them at a much higher rate than their able-bodied peers – hardly surprising given the prevalent attitudes I have discussed. In much the same way that casual sexism can ultimately lead to violence against women, the continual devaluation of disabled lives legitimises any harm done to them. In my opinion, changing these attitudes isn’t hard. If a journalist, author, actor or director wishes to tell a story about disabled people – talk to disabled people first. We have all manner of voices, waiting to be heard – if you’ll listen.
*Don’t worry though, her nephew is in a wheelchair.