Seeing Million Dollar Baby From My Wheelchair
Many people have told me that they don't think they could "stand
to live" if they needed a wheelchair like me. That's why I felt
a little queasy about going to see Million Dollar Baby.
But helping plan the first disability protest of the movie, in
Chicago, I had a duty to see it.
I thought I was emotionally well-prepared. I already knew many
details about the last half hour — the injury, hospital, nursing
home and killing scenes — from disabled colleagues.
But my preparation was more than that. When I grew up,
through braces and surgeries, my elementary school teachers called me
"Mary Sunshine." When I completed UCLA law school from a motorized
wheelchair, I was called "inspirational." I took it as the highest
compliment to be told by some non-disabled person that they "didn't
think of" me as "handicapped." When I was excluded or rejected in my
work or social life, I could always understand the other's perspective.
Even the few times someone would actually say they would
rather be dead than be like me, I would just politely forge on.
In my early thirties, sharing experiences with disabled
friends, I finally learned how to recognize and constructively resist
discrimination. The connection and insights we shared gave me a new lens
through which to view my life. Most importantly, I learned to look more
clearly at the ways I had internalized the stigma and shame of
disability, and began the lifelong struggle to undo the damage done by
growing up in isolation from a true sense of community and mutual
In short, a "Jerry's Kid" became a "telethon protester."
Over the last two decades of involvement in the disability rights
movement, I have faced arrest many times in non-violent protest to help
win the right to ride the bus, and the right to not be forced into a
nursing home because of the need for assistance to live. During
Kevorkian's heyday in assisting the suicides of middle-aged disabled
women, I founded a national disability rights group called Not Dead Yet.
Using a ventilator at night since 2002, it's become even more personal.
I came into the theater, wanting to flee quickly when
Million Dollar Baby was over. I sat through the whole movie without
removing my coat, scarf, hat or gloves.
Queasy stomach, wish to flee — not typical for me
anymore. Moreover, the threat of assisted suicide and euthanasia are
daily fare for Not Dead Yet. We fight to be heard over the loud voices
of players on both sides whose interests should be readily seen as, at
best, secondary to the organized voice of those society says are "better
off dead." So many of us have died too young, never getting a real
chance to live.
In the midst of all that reality, what makes a fictional
movie like Million Dollar Baby so disturbing that I want to
As the movie unfolded to its star-powered conclusion, audience
members sniffled in pitiful admiration of Maggie's determination to
die rather than move on and leave her non-disabled life behind. They
were deeply moved by Frankie's redemption through fatherly love, his
wish to help her live and his profound sacrifice in giving up
everything he had to free her from her "frozen" body. This is the
bittersweet ending that inspires so much acclaim.
As I watched, I thought about the impact the movie would
have on severely disabled people surrounded only by doctors, nurses and
mixed up, grieving family and friends.
Million Dollar Baby
"Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is a
masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true." - Roger
Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
"This movie is a corny, melodramatic assault on people with
disabilities. It plays out killing as a romantic fantasy and
gives emotional life to the 'better dead than disabled'
mindset lurking in the heart of the typical (read:
nondisabled) audience member." - Stephen Drake, Not Dead
(Million Dollar Baby won four Oscars: best picture,
best actress, best supporting actor and best director.)
Swept along in the emotion, could any audience member imagine a
happy and meaningful life for Maggie as a quad? For him or herself
as a quad?
It took me another week to get in touch with my deeper
Could people imagine a happy and meaningful life for me?
Could they see that I am not living a fate worse than death?
I've always felt a tension between how others see me and how I see
myself. By now, that tension, and my coping mechanisms, are way
below the surface. Denial, the fantasy of acceptance, I have used
whatever I could to endure and manage over 50 years of those looks,
and looks away, to be who I am out in the world everyday.
But now I am forced to see how critics and audiences
love this movie, resent our anger, and extol the virtues of open public
discussion of euthanasia based on disability. My fantasy is ripped away.
If I'd been truly prepared, I'd have brought a sign to
hold up, saying, "I Am Not Better Off Dead." I would have looked into
every face exiting the theater, insisting that they see me, and this
simple yet apparently incomprehensible message.
Diane Coleman. "Seeing Million Dollar Baby From
My Wheelchair." Not Dead Yet (February 2005).
This article is reprinted with permission from the
Diane Coleman obtained her law degree and Masters in
Business Administration from the University of California at Los Angeles
in 1981 and worked as an attorney for the State of California for seven
years. During this time, she also served as a member of the California
Attorney General's Commission on Disability. Relocating to Tennessee in
1989, she became Co-Director of the Technology Access Center of Middle
Tennessee and served as Policy Analyst for the Tennessee Technology
Access Project, funded through the National Institute of Disability and
Rehabilitation Research. She served on the Tennessee Advisory Committee
to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the Advisory Committee to the
Tennessee Human Rights Commission. Ms. Coleman is currently the
Executive Director of the Progress Center for Independent Living in
Forest Park, Illinois, a nonprofit nonresidential consumer-directed
center advocating on behalf of people with disabilities. She currently
serves as a member of the Illinois State Medicaid Advisory Committee,
the Illinois Medicaid Buy-In Advisory Committee, and is a member of the
Board of Directors of the Illinois Campaign for Better Health Care.
In April, 1996, she founded Not Dead Yet, a national grassroots
disability rights organization opposing the legalization of assisted
suicide and euthanasia. She has twice presented invited testimony before
the Constitution Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S.
House of Representatives (April 29, 1996 and July 14, 1998) as well as
the Illinois Legislature on the topic of assisted suicide. Ms. Coleman
is a well-known writer and speaker on assisted suicide and euthanasia.
She co-authored Amicus Briefs filed in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf
of Not Dead Yet and ADAPT in the matter of Vacco v. Quill (1996) and in
the Conservatorship of the Person of Robert Wendland in the California
Supreme Court (2000). In 2003, she joined the adjunct faculty at the
University of Illinois at Chicago to co-teach a series of graduate
courses in disability and medical ethics.
Copyright © 2005
Not Dead Yet