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How Roger Ebert Inspired Scott Jordan Harris

April 20, 2013

And other disabled people. By Scott Jordan Harris for the BBC.

Roger Ebert, who died this month, was one of the world’s most respected film critics. He was also an inspirational figure for disabled people, says Scott Jordan Harris, a writer with ME.


Since he died on 4 April, so many articles have been written about the American film critic Roger Ebert, that even those who had not previously heard of him, now know he was the most famous and acclaimed film critic in the world. Many of the tributes say how admirably he faced the cancer that eventually killed him.


But far less attention has been given to the inspirational example he set for disabled people.


In 2006 – after repeated surgery which was only partly successful – Ebert lost the ability to speak and to eat. Suddenly, he had to be tube-fed. And, due to a series of attempts to reconstruct his jaw and throat using bone, skin and tissue taken from his arms, legs and back, he encountered painful mobility issues. But he kept working.


And in 2007, Forbes magazine declared Ebert “the most powerful pundit in America”. His reputation increased after he became disabled. To the Pulitzer Prize he earned in 1975 while able-bodied, he added a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame three years after cancer first struck. And four years after he lost the power of speech, he won a Webby award as the internet’s “person of the year”. President Obama acknowledged his death.


As disabled people, we are often told we have the opportunity to participate in any profession. But seldom, if ever, are we told we can rise to its peak. Ebert proved you can be severely disabled and still be the best in the world at what you do. His profile grew after becoming disabled. He could no longer talk on television, which had made him a star, so he reached an even larger audience by speaking through his blog, Facebook and his beloved Twitter.


He embraced inventions that had the potential to ease his physical difficulties like feeding tubes which he quickly adapted to. In a blog post on the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, he complained that his wife and nurse “squirrel me away in a private place” to feed him and said that “the less mystery we make about life and illness, the better”.


Alan Bennett has written that cancer made him a prolific writer. It had a similar effect on Ebert, who wrote more reviews in the final year of his career than in any of the previous 45.


I benefited directly from Ebert’s new take on disability. I’m a film critic but have to turn down the majority of jobs offered to me. My disabilities often leave me housebound, something which prospective employers cannot, or will not, accommodate.


When Ebert first endorsed my writing, he didn’t know I was disabled. When he found out, he never allowed me to be marginalised because of it. He published my work on his website, the most-read film critic’s site in the world, and treated me as an equal among its contributors.


His writing urged the world to behave as well towards disabled people as it does towards the able-bodied, and his actions demonstrated how that should be done.


Since his death, there have been many questions about the best way to commemorate Ebert’s life. The answers are simple. If you are a filmmaker, the best tribute is to make good movies. If you are a film critic, it is to write good movie reviews. If you are a film fan, it is to watch good movies.


And if, like me, you are disabled, the best tribute to Roger Ebert is to remember what he taught us – there is no adversity that cannot in some way be turned to our advantage. There is no prejudice that cannot, through openness and honesty, be disproved.


And there is no disability so severe it can force us to be silent.

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