Roger Ebert - critic and inspiration

Roger Ebert at a podium Roger Ebert lost part of his jaw due to cancer

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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.

Start Quote

Roger Ebert's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Ebert proved you can be severely disabled and still be the best at what you do”

End Quote Scott Jordan Harris

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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  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I can't help but feel that his wife's (Chaz) role in his disability is largely overlooked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Some people with disabilities internalize shame: They see themselves as ugly or less worthy. They consider rejection their own fault. Ebert undercut these false notions; he refused to reject his physical changes.
    This was a simple act of proud defiance by an established film critic, but the full reality is most disabled people cannot break down doors to employment, far less be succesful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Many folk with ME suffer from severe cognitive problems - (loss of short term memory, aphasia, dysphasia) which *do* preclude working from home via computers.
    Those who are completely bed-bound in dark, quiet rooms, in constant intractible pain and tube-fed, are also unable to muster enough strength to work.
    To say that ALL disabled folk are able to work is, sadly, a load of utter nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Not many people disabled or not can have a job as a film critic.He showed remarkable fortitude and determination to carry on it is true but freelance work and a talent which can be used without having to negotiate the work place in person on a daily basis would benefit anyone who has difficulty leading a 'normal; life.Opportunity and or luck or sponsorship helps too. Inspirational but not typical.

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    Comment number 5.

    Disabled just means that there are some things that you cannot do, it doesn't mean that you are completely incapable of doing anything at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Excuse my ignorance, but i'd never heard of him until I read this. . . . . .All I can say, is 'WOW!. . . .If ever there was an inspiration in the fight against cancer and disability, this man is it!
    To keep on going and fighting with a big smile on your face when you are terminally ill is immense.
    @3. . . . I wish you the best of luck. You can do anything you put your mind to

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Both Harris and Ebert are inspirational to someone like me. I too have ME as well as fibromyalgia and severe hyper joint mobility. I'm in my final year at uni and competing for graduate jobs in labs and police forensic jobs. I'm hoping I can get people to see my skills and my methods of adjusting work around my disability so they will employ me. With some luck someone will give a shot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Disable people can put able-bodied to shame, they don't quit at the first hurdle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    An inspirational human being whose vocabulary never included the word 'quit'.


Comments 5 of 9


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