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What 'Come as You Are' Can Teach Us About Understanding Differences

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I’ve never understood the gravity of disability representation until now. Seeing elements of my own existence was monumental for me. The first time I saw the film “Come as You Are,” I sobbed and needed a lot of tissues to wipe my tears.

In “Come as You Are,” each character is deeply unique and multi-dimensional. In a feature-length film, how often do you see a group of adult friends, each living with disabilities that may appear similar to the viewer, but who are deeply different below their outward appearance? To my knowledge, rarely. Have you ever seen a main character of a film who is a quadriplegic, but the plotline isn’t only about that, but also his desire to lose his virginity? I haven’t.

I’ve never seen a film where the complexities of disability are detailed in a character, giving that character multiple dimensions — not just the one of being a disabled person. I first noticed this in the incorporation of the main character’s family members. A prominent theme in the film is how family members go through their own journeys, and how disability shapes the relationship between parents and their children with disabilities. When I watched Scotty’s mom interact with him, I felt like I was given a glimpse into their complex dynamic. I could feel her fear when he left for the Canadian road trip, and she sat at the computer on his room and watched his rap videos.

This scene gave me a better understanding of how my parents must’ve felt when I was medically disabled due to my ulcerative colitis. Scotty’s mom watched his rap videos intently, as if to learn about another side of him. The camera focused on her facial expressions and the pure empathy radiating from her eyes. She saw a side that Scotty didn’t show to anyone except those who listened and watched his artistic expression of his struggles. His words opened a door for her to peer in and see his pain. This scene made me realize that even though she was his caregiver, she would never really know her son and what he goes through on a daily basis. This is why Scotty didn’t tell her when he left on the road trip; he knew she would never let him go.

In another pivotal scene about the character’s family members, Moe, a man with a visual impairment, was sitting in the passenger side of Sam’s van. He told her that he’s never gone on a trip without his mom. He’s a grown adult. I wondered where his mom was in the film; we were never introduced to her. But this also illustrated to me that there are varying levels of involvement with parents or caregivers, particularly when their adult child lives with a disability or physical limitation.

I also understood Moe in this scene. What resonated the most to me was the feeling of having your physical body limit you to such a level that you crave that freedom to just get away. As a person with a disability myself, I can never actually “get away” from my body. But when I saw these characters working so hard to take back some freedom for their road trip, it was inspiring.

There was a sense of childhood wonder in the characters as they planned what seemed like an “adventure.” The term “field trip” came up multiple times and was connected to a “vacation.” Matt argued that they were not on a “field trip.” His anger was palpable. The characters were adults, but adults with limitations that had been placed on them, so the adventure couldn’t be accomplished without a lot of help from able-bodied people — a concept I know very well.

The concept of having an “able body” is hard for me to define here, mainly because Sam initially appeared to be “healthy” and without a disability. But I’ve never connected so deeply with a character as when she was taking off Scotty’s shoes before bed at the hotel and suddenly stopped responding to the other characters in the room. She then passed out and fell to the floor from her knees. After the ambulance came and brought her to the hospital, it was learned that she lives with type 1 diabetes. She also had a disability, just an invisible one. Like me.

“I know what you’re going through.” This statement was said at multiple points in the film, illustrating the vast array of consequences it can have on an individual. One example was when Matt said he knew how Scotty felt. Both men were wheelchair users. He said this in the elevator, a closed space with nowhere for Scotty to hide from the implications. Scotty was livid. He yelled at Matt, explaining that Matt will never know what he goes through and to never say that again.

It is all too common to put labels on others, to categorize individuals so you can better understand them. This scene showed me that even when people appear to be similar on the outside, they are more than likely experiencing very different realities. Never assume you know what someone else is going through. Until you’ve lived in their body, you will never know.

“My cousin’s brother in law has Down syndrome, so… I know.” The well-meaning cop Scotty, Moe and Matt meet on the side of the road had no idea. He didn’t know what their individual lives consisted of each day. But the assumption of “getting it” is a central theme of the film.

I will never be able to understand another person’s reality and the world will never understand mine. The saying goes, “walk a mile in my shoes,” but even then, your experiences are your own. I didn’t expect this. I expected for others to be able to understand. I mistakenly assumed my chronic illness would be easy for others to “get.”

Once the characters made it to Canada, in hopes of visiting a brothel to lose their virginity, their parents caught onto their plan. They met up with the men and Sam at their hotel. I began to weep when Scotty’s mom and Matt’s parents found them. I felt sadness because these adult men had once again been controlled by authority. They were reminded that their limitations did, in fact, exist and they could not outrun them. Even in a different country.

Another theme of the film was to introduce the concept of what is it to be “normal.” Scotty wasn’t a cliche or inspiration, he was a regular guy who enjoyed watching wheelchair baseball and just wanted to get laid. Human needs and urges develop each character into more than what the viewer sees — they are so much more than their disabilities.

The final way this film resonated with me was through the theme of how similar we all are as people. It is human nature to want to relate to others. We need to connect with others, even when it’s difficult — for example, when Scotty had a hard time relating to his mother, or relating to Matt, who was in a wheelchair as well, but due to a degenerative condition very different from Scotty’s. Moe and Sam created a relationship, regardless of his visual impairments, and her diabetes, and found love. They could relate to each other even through their differences.

This concept of connection and understanding relates to the power of presence and compassion. “Come as You Are” illustrated the immense power of simply listening and genuinely hearing one another.

Originally published: March 30, 2020
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