In response to the recently-released film Me Before You, there have been so many comments about people with disabilities having the right to die. This film obviously does not represent all people with disabilities. But it is a common narrative.
As valuable as life is, everyone has the choice to choose whether to live or to not keep going.
Perhaps the issue here isn’t whether or not people with disabilities have the right to die, but that people with disabilities have the right to live. That is something that is not usually afforded to people with disability across the board. Most disabled people cannot even afford the amount of care the protagonist of Me Before You can. Living with a disability is costly and leads to massive amount of poverty and an inequitable system. But even with supports through government waivers or money, that doesn’t mean those with disabilities get the chance to live.
Perhaps the issue here isn’t whether or not people with disabilities have the right to die, but that people with disabilities have the right to live.
People with disabilities have the highest unemployment rate of any group. Employers tend to fear hiring people with disabilities and if they do hire them, it tends to be for low-paying, menial jobs. If they are able to get hired, a transportation system that does not always have elevators to get down to the subway or buses that go direct to places limit their being able to get to work and move around. Even if you can drive, a lot of times there are a lack of parking spaces for people with disabilities and the ones that do exist can be taken by people who assume they are not needed and no one with a disability uses them.
Outside of that, people with disabilities, especially people with developmental disabilities, tend to lead very isolated lives. Now it is true there are programs that let people with disabilities work and be together, like workshops and day programs. These programs do help some, but also limit many others. It becomes more about a group of people who have one little thing in common. If we did that with women, gay people, African Americans, any other group, without their choice, that would be a classic definition of segregation.
So before someone with a disability chooses the right to die, let’s let them have the right to live, and live well.
Finally, with the predominant media image of people with disabilities being in some ways better off dead, a burden or nuisance to society, people that can only be helped and who bring no value other than just pulling through, it leads to negative images within people with disabilities themselves. I have always been scared to admit my disability because I am so used to autism being seen as bad. There have actually been times in the past where I did want to kill myself because of the burden to me and my family my disability seemed to create. At points I thought I had no chance to live a non-disabled normal life, like those with friends and a job and meaning. I have found out that some of that was not about me but from bigger forces.
The man who inspired Me Before You chose assisted suicide because, “He did not want to be a second-class citizen.” So do people with a disability have the right to die? Yes. But like the hashtag of Me Before You encourages people, let’s try to take down the barriers against people with disability so we all can #LiveBoldly. So before someone with a disability chooses the right to die, let’s let them have the right to live, and live well.
Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University. Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University. He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View.