Let’s Start Putting More Regular Disabled Characters In Movies And On TV

The nice thing about a good, old-fashioned controversy is that it can take issues that were hidden below the surface and help them bubble up a bit. That’s what’s happened with the movie Me Before You, which has upset disability-advocacy groups and started a conversation about the way people with disabilities are depicted in movies. As someone with a disability myself (a spinal-cord injury at the C4 vertebrae), the whole thing is actually kind of nice — kind of — because it gives me a timely, newsworthy opportunity to point out some things in the situation that I think are worth discussing, and that rarely get brought up without something like this giving it a turbo booster. So let’s do that for a few minutes. Let’s talk about wheelchair stuff.

First, a primer, with necessary spoilers: Me Before You, based on a book of the same name, tells the story of Louisa Taylor (Emilia Clarke). Louisa is a young woman who is hired to be a caregiver for Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), a former playboy and banker from a wealthy family who suffered a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident, leaving him paralyzed. She tries to show him that life is still worth living, and she eventually falls in love with him, but Will is so despondent over the idea of living in a wheelchair that he chooses to end his life with the help of an organization that specializes in assisted suicide.

Or, at least, that’s what 10 minutes of Googling tells me the plot of the movie is. I have not seen it. I doubt I ever will. It’s not that I’m protesting it, necessarily, although there are a number of disability-advocacy groups that are, for reasons I agree with in their broad strokes. It’s not that I’m even all that mad about it. Is it the best possible depiction of a person with a disability? Well, no. Not by a lot. But it’s not a totally outlandish premise, either. Studies have shown that people with spinal-cord injuries commit suicide at a rate three times higher than the rest of the population. There’s a sliver of defensible fact propping the whole thing up, and as someone who has always tried to grant creators wide latitude to tell their stories, it would make me a bit of a hypocrite to yell and scream about it now just because this time it’s about my thing. My main reason for not wanting to see it is that it will probably be a huge bummer.

When I say it will be a bummer, I mean it two ways, micro and macro. First, at the risk of being glib about a serious topic, I mean that I — a relatively happy thousandaire disabled person who is not dating anyone from the hit HBO drama Game of Thrones — do not particularly want to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon in June watching a movie about a depressed millionaire with the same injury as me who decides to end his life over the objections of his girlfriend, Daenerys Targaryen. That does not seem like fun to me. But the bigger bummer, and the reason this kind of movie is upsetting to so many people, is that it is one of the only stories Hollywood ever tells about people with disabilities.

Let me explain: There are, more or less, with a few exceptions sprinkled in, three kinds of people with disabilities that get put into movies: 1) People who are super depressed about having a disability (Will in Me Before You); 2) People who overcome their disability to achieve a goal, often depicted toward the end of the movie in slow motion as dramatic music swells (as you’ve seen in countless tearjerkers that end up earning their stars Oscar nominations); and 3) billionaires and/or geniuses and/or people with superhuman abilities (Charles Xavier from X-Men). What doesn’t get put into movies as often, and what I’d love to start seeing more of, is, like, a regular person with a disability.

And admittedly, that’s a tricky piece of business. Most actions and dramas focus on exceptional people, by definition, and the best and easiest way to make a disabled person stand out is to make them tortured or inspirational, or by giving them enough other gifts that it kind of cancels out their disability in the audience’s mind. I understand all of that.

(Quick note: There’s a big part of me that wants to see Charles Xavier land his fancy science plane outside a villain’s compound while searching for some formula or ooze that he needs to reverse or enhance mutant powers for whatever reason he figured out late in Act II, only to realize there are eight or nine steps to get to the front door of the facility and there is no ramp in sight, because super villains are rarely concerned about complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act when they’re building their compounds. I will laugh and laugh and laugh in the theater if this happens, and then I will turn around and see how many able-bodied people’s laughter I can stop mid-chuckle by pretending to be mad about it. A little treat for me!)

So what I’m going to do here is offer a compromise, and I think it’s a fair one. You, Hollywood, can keep making these kinds of movies, within reason. Just try to be thoughtful about it, and try a little harder to do right by the groups you’re portraying by doing some research and talking to advocates a bit before you say “Action!,” and try a lot harder to cast actual disabled actors and actresses in the roles. I know this last part could be hard, largely because there’s a smaller pool to choose from. But the reason there’s a smaller pool to choose from is because there are so few good roles for people with disabilities, and whenever one comes around you hurry up and give it to some strapping able-bodied dude who is probably named Chris and is probably from, like, Nebraska. That’s why it has to be on you. That’s why you have to try. Because that garden can’t grow until you plant stuff in it.

(Another quick note: It’s probably not a coincidence that my favorite depiction of a disabled character in recent memory, and maybe ever, was Michael J. Fox’s recurring role as Louis Canning on The Good Wife, in large part because having an actor with real physical limitations allowed them to kind of turn the whole trope on its head. Canning was a brilliant lawyer and manipulative scuzzbag who used his disability to get jurors and judges to pity him — sometimes going so far as to skip doses of medicine to make his symptoms appear worse — and then used that to his advantage at trial. It was great, and knowing that Fox was in on the joke made it even better. The only problem is that the best way to get a role like that, apparently, is to have played Marty McFly in Back to the Future at some point before developing your condition. That’s a very small pool to choose from.)

But anyway, if you at least promise to really try to do those things, I can live with that half of the deal. In exchange, you have to start putting more regular characters with disabilities in your movies, to balance it all out.

What do I mean by regular? Well, here’s one way to go: A well-adjusted person who has friends and a social life and is just doing pretty okay, in general, who also happens to be in a wheelchair. Not someone whose entire purpose in the film is to be “the disabled character.” You don’t have to sugarcoat things (that’s not great, either), but you don’t need to dwell on it. Oh, and it definitely can’t be a technician or a coroner or anyone in a lab coat who rolls into the scene for 20 seconds to explain very science things to the protagonist and his comically mismatched partner before they run off to the bad guy’s warehouse without a warrant. You’ve used up your supply of those. Instead, I’m thinking something along the lines of a main-ish character in a Seth Rogen or Judd Apatow ensemble comedy, or one like it. That would be a good, easy place to start.

Actually, on second thought, I think that would be a great to start, because comedy allows you to cut through some of the tension the audience might feel. Let the disabled person tell jokes! Let his or her friends tell jokes back! It is even okay to joke about the disability, as long as the jokes are coming from a place of inclusion. In fact, in a way, it’s really good to do that, because that kind of good-natured ball-busting is far more inclusive than treating someone with kid gloves because you’re afraid of hurting their feelings, even if you think you’re helping. It’s a much more polite form of exclusion when you do that, but it still results in someone being excluded. Which is bad.

And truthfully, it wouldn’t even be that hard. I’m not asking you to invent cold fusion here. I’m just asking you to take the exact same type of comedy you were already going to make and replace one character with someone in a wheelchair. Let’s say, oh, I don’t know… let’s say whichever character Jay Baruchel was going to play. Make that character a wheelchair guy. Wait, no, what are you doing? Don’t just put Jay Baruchel in a wheelchair! We talked about this! Find a real disabled person and put them in the movie. If you need input on what kind of jokes and plot to include for the character to make it work, find a second disabled person and ask them. Look at that! You already hired two disabled people! See how easy that was?

(One last note: Since this is just a conversation between you and me, Hollywood, I’ll let you in on something: You will get great publicity for this, especially with casting diversity being such a hot issue right now. The media loves disabled people so much, particularly stories about them achieving things. I’ve been interviewed like five different times and all I’ve ever done is finish school and write posts about TV characters getting mauled by bears. Yes, the stories they tell will be exactly the type of fawning ones I just asked you to cool it with a few minutes ago, but we’re going to let them have those, for now, because they’ll move us in the right direction. Our secret.)

Here’s the point I’m trying to make in all of this: Movies about depressed, suicidal characters with disabilities are not inherently bad. They can be compelling, real stories that tell one part of the experience of being disabled, just like they do when they’re about fully able-bodied people who are dealing with the same issues. The problem is that those kinds of stories are one of a few that ever get told about disabled people, instead of just one slice of a complete picture, and it can all really get to be a huge bummer after a while. Especially when, as we just discussed, it’s not a particularly hard problem to fix. So let’s get cracking on this one, okay?