Saturday, May 25, 2019
Disability RightsHot Topics

Hollywood Promotes the Idea it is Better to be Dead than Disabled

Few films make me as upset as The Sea Inside. It has been years since the first time I saw the 2004
Alejandro Amenábar vehicle, which stars Javier Bardem, as a real-life disabled man named Ramón Sampedro, a Spanish man who believed it was better to be dead than disabled. Rather than portraying disability in a way that would open up dialogue about why disabled people feel that way, and addressing the greater issue of how society views disability, the film is a testament as to why non-disabled people should pity the disabled community, especially those who are as disabled as Ramón Sampedro, and support his decision to end his life, even if his disability was not fatal, which it was not.


We look to film and television for how to treat others, how to understand others, and to learn about stories about people we don’t actually know. The majority of non-disabled people do not know someone with a disability. This is in spite of disability be the world’s largest minority community with numbers between 1 billion worldwide. A lot of this is because disabled people have been kept away, out of public essentially sequestered to the back bedroom, until the early to mid-20th century, when disabled activists started fighting for their rights to go to school, find employment, and anything else non-disabled counterparts were doing. If not stuck in the back bedroom, others were performing in freak shows, the objects of pity and awe…never of understanding or relatability.

Around a century has passed, and society still doesn’t know how to deal with disabled people. Hollywood doesn’t know how to tell disabled stories, so it falls back upon tired tropes that often involve pity or awe. This trope is so common, many activists look out for it in any new forms of media that includes disability. Even as the world becomes more tolerant of other differences, the pity narrative for disabled characters continues. The Sea Inside came out over a decade ago, and yet we still have not evolved enough beyond the harmful message embedded in this film.

Even as disabled activists fight to prove that our lives are worth living, assisted suicide has been discussed, and even approved, in states like California. Such legislation puts disabled lives at risk, under the guise of letting terminally ill people die with dignity. Such films continue to uphold the narrative that disabled people deserve to be able to kill themselves, because being disabled is so awful. It doesn’t matter if the disabled person is dying. Suicide is still seen as a viable option, because people believe being disabled is a fate worse than death.

The latest film to take on the narrative that it is be better to be dead rather than disabled is a very disappointing film called Me Before You. It stars British television stars, Emilia Clarke and Jenna Coleman. Even more disappointing is the casting of The Hunger Games actor Sam Clafin, as a physically disabled man. The trailer is filled with ableism, and many harmful disability stereotypes. Additionally, not only is the non-disabled actor cast as a cripple, he’s the worst kind of crip. He is pathetic, pity-inducing, and absolutely inaccurate to most disabled people’s reality. He makes you want to pity him and support him dying, “because it’s the right thing to do.”

The film is based on a romance novel by British romance writer, Jojo Moyes. If it is anything like her novel, then *******SPOILERS AHEAD******* we are looking at a film that sees a man with a disability who in spite of finding love, still kills himself, because life is not worth living if you have to live it in a wheelchair. Of course, his disability is also a plot device for the true lead character, who actually benefits from the death. His disability and subsequent death because of it, allow her to go on living. She is able-bodied compared to him, so she is able to benefit because he leaves her the money she needs to have a successful life. His death benefits her, and solves all her problems, so even if she loved him, it is better for her that he died.

You can see the trailer below:

The disability community is sick of seeing films where disabled people are misrepresented. Part of this is because we are not included, anywhere. We were not consulted for the script. A wheelchair user did not write the script. Even the main actor is an able-bodied actor, which prevents him from knowing how accurate his acting, how harmful his portrayal, and how inauthentic the script really are. Without including the disabled voice, non-disabled Hollywood continues to make life harder for us, because this is all people see, and they assume it’s true.

I believe that if Hollywood showed more disabled actors, particularly wheelchair users, who we never see, and the stories were more reflective of the disabled experience, then people would believe disabled lives were worth living. There is a huge difference between a debilitating illness, such as brain cancer, in the end stages, and a person with a disability who is not dying. You can find success, love, fulfillment even if you happen to use a wheelchair. It is not the end of the world, and these films need to stop scaring people into thinking it is. We cannot change the narrative about disability when these kinds of films continued to be made.

We cannot make better, accurate, disabled-inclusive films, so long as Hollywood is able to continue shutting us out. Often, performances in these kinds of movies are awarded by the institution, and disabled actors continue to struggle to find any type of meaningful work. If we are not even allowed to play disabled roles, who are we allowed to play? I only wish disabled perspectives were even considered, because until they are we will keep seeing films that continue to harm one of the most oppressed groups in the world. The disability community deserves better.

Please follow and like us:


  1. I agree with most of what Dominick has written, including his pointing out that changes in the laws to facilitate assisted suicide put disabled lives at risk, however, I do not fully understand this comment “There is a huge difference between a debilitating illness, such as brain cancer, in the end stages, and a person with a disability who is not dying. You can find success, love, fulfillment even if you happen to use a wheelchair. It is not the end of the world, and these films need to stop scaring people into thinking it is. We cannot change the narrative about disability when these kinds of films continued to be made.” My late wife died from a malignant primary brain tumour and I am in frequent contact with newly diagnosed people with this disease. I aim to encourage them to maintain realistic hope, that they might be the first to benefit from a new therapy, or that they can find love and support in their final days. The comment I have quoted from the revirew seems to me to be too nihilistic.

  2. You make a good point. I was referring to the very end of life for someone who has something like brain cancer, often when people are not completely aware of their surroundings anymore, and you know that end is coming for certain. I think that before that point, you don’t know when death is going to come, so you should maintain hope. I did not mean to imply someone with brain cancer should not maintain hope. I was just referring to having those illnesses where there is a definitive sign the end is coming soon, which a lot of people seem to believe happens to those of us in wheelchairs, simply because we use a wheelchair. However, I think there is a huge difference between being disabled and being at the very end of your life, and knowing it is coming.

  3. Look, go to the usual eBook sellers and download Rolling with the Punches if you want to find out what living with a disability is like, and you can have a laugh at the same time. It’s a very entertaining read and written by someone who has had a spinal injury since he was 3 and who definitely doesn’t subscribe to the ‘better off dead’ edict.

  4. […] I know that some people do feel the way Will feels in the book but it was a mean to an end which isn’t acceptable especially when written by an able-bodied woman. I am not the best person to talk about this because I didn’t recognize the problems when I first read the book but for more in depth reviews from people who actually know what they are talking about, here are some links: (1) – (2) – (3) […]

  5. Hollywood, a product of large pop-culture media, absolutely needs to be held to certain moral standards in order for the good of the culture. Although I believe in freedom of speech and the right to express almost anything, media, beyond being made well, should also be inspiring, truthful, and maintain the dignity of the human person. I agree with the author that the movie appears to express the idea that being disabled is not a life worth living and I believe that is a shame because all life is inherently good. A person with disabilities is still a human that is good and deserves to be loved and feel loved. Media can do good and beautiful things. I recently saw a movie called “Becoming Bulletproof”. This is a documentary of a movie production team that hires disabled actors and helps them reach their dreams and full potential as actors. The movie restored my hope in humanity, helped me experience a different viewpoint of those with disabilities, inspired me to view those different than me with charity, and was also made well and was easy to watch. Media is a blessing, and can lead humanity to goodness, truth, and beauty. Hollywood needs to be more sensitive to the messages they send to its audience.

  6. What I’d like is for the next actor or actress (able-bodied and neurotypical)
    to pull a Marlon Brando act (if they do happen to win an award or a few of them). Reject any award on behalf of the disabled community. What’s good enough on behalf of racism, sexism or homophobia is good enough for us. Tear all walls of discrimination down now!

Leave a Response

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Dominick is a director/filmmaker, activist, writer, advocate, FTM transman from the Midwest who lives in New York. Follow his film career and join his weekly Twitter chat on film and disability by following #FilmDis. He received his BFA in Film Production in 2014.