Disability only appears as a subplot in Vera Drake, but is illustrative of the larger social problems in the austerity of postwar Britain. The movie opens on a scene of middle-aged Vera trudging up the stairs to visit a wheelchair-using neighbor, George Wells, fluffing up his pillows and making him a cup of tea. George appears quite depressed and uncommunicative, barely making eye contact. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that he’s depressed because he’s trapped in a walk-up apartment long before anyone thought of making buildings wheelchair accessible, but George’s problems run even deeper than that.
These were the days before any kind of home help was available in Britain. While Vera’s friendly visits are no doubt much appreciated, they do little to alleviate the real issues. Who helps George get bathed, dressed, and seated in his wheelchair each morning? His wife. Who went out to earn a living in the days when there were few careers available to homebound disabled men? His wife. Who helps George in the inaccessible bathroom after that mid-day tea has passed through his kidneys? His wife. When ignorant politicians say they want disabled people to be cared for by volunteers, what they really mean is the wife, or the mother, or maybe the daughter or the sister: the uncompensated labor of women. The kind of caring a neighborly volunteer does is the fluffing up of pillows and the making of tea.
Indeed, when we meet his wife later in the movie, she’s so depressed that she doesn’t want to get out of bed. Vera tries to empathize, as she’s also taking care of her bedridden elderly mother, but even her daily encouragement and assistance must be eventually withdrawn when she goes to prison. The movie doesn’t show what happens to the Wells family after that, but without paid caregivers or a social safety net, we can make an educated guess. Theirs is a situation ripe for abuse, neglect, abandonment, poverty, depression and other mental illnesses.