One of the things people love and hate about me is my humour. I laugh very easily and heartily. It has been said of my laughter that it is extremely contagious. It is not uncommon for complete strangers to come up to me and say that they love my laugh. I don’t believe in holding it back, if you are going to laugh, laugh properly I say. But I can also have a very dark sense of humour which can put people offside.
Just a few days ago I made a bit of a whoopsie. I was at a function. At this function was a colleague. The colleague gets around using a scooter as she has mobility issues. She also has the most wonderful assistance dog. Now usually you must leave assistance dogs well alone as they are working dogs. But my colleague will have none of this. She encourages people to talk to and cuddle the dog at will. Now – being the marshmallow that I am – I gush over, cuddle and baby talk to the dog when ever I see it. I fancy the dog lies in wait for me. Whenever I am in a room its eyes follows me until I come over to say hello. As I make my way over its considerable backside will sway wildly as it sets its tail wagging.
Anyway, after spending ten minutes or so gushing over the dog, I will remember my manners. I will say hello to its owner, who will beam me a smile and give me a look that clearly tells me that she thinks I am an amiable idiot. What was to follow would certainly have confirmed this fact in her eyes. Another colleague was talking to her. This colleague confessed that dogs normally frightened her. For some reason, this dog didn’t frighten her. The conversation went something like this:
Her: I’m usually frightened of dogs
Me: Really? No one can be frightened of this great big thing.
Her: Yes, you are right he is such a lovely animal. I feel I now know what to do to overcome my fear of dogs.
Me: What? Get yourself in a wheelchair.
Now, I was very tired. I had been up since 5am and it just slipped out. But my colleague, who owns the dog, chuckled ruefully. Her acquaintance? Her jaw just dropped! Red faced she protested that she hadn’t meant that, but something totally different. Then the penny dropped and she allowed herself a chuckle as well.
I apologised profusely. I explained that sometimes my humour is a bit dark and I hoped that I hadn’t offended anyone. But, strangely enough, we all began to relax a little. The tension that often exists in professional gatherings where people try to maintain their professional facade had melted away. We all became more open and relaxed and began to discuss a number of other disability topics. I think I got lucky because this ill thought one-liner could easily have backfired.
But as incidents like this often do, it got my mind ticking over. In this case I began to think about humour in general, what makes us laugh and why? Of course, because I am currently commuting as total of five hours a day on a train, I have plenty of time to think about such mundane issues. So with my trusty iPad I began to research humour.
It seems a simple thing to ask. What is humour? But of course nothing is ever simple. The first thing that came up on my Google search was this. “Humor is distinguished from wit, satire, and farce. It is less intellectual and more imaginative than wit, being concerned more with character and situation than with plays upon words or upon ideas; more sympathetic and less cruel than satire; more subtle than farce. On the other side, it shades into fancy and imagination, since it is concerned, as they are, with exploring the possibilities of unlikely situations or combinations of ideas, but differs from them in being concerned only with the laughable aspects of these imagined situations.” I promptly nodded off only to be awoken when the train shuddered to a halt at Ballarat station.
Anyway a little bit later, a few days actually, I changed my search to, WHAT MAKES US LAUGH? The first thing that I read was this, “As adults we lose the ability to laugh. We become conditioned and very much influenced by other peoples’ expectations of us. There are heavier responsibilities upon our shoulders, as we grow up. More serious people who we live and mix with encourage us also to be more serious. We can get put down for laughing and being light-hearted, resulting in suppressing our natural cheerful state and so laughing less. This has a dramatic effect upon our health and well-being.” I was quickly coming to the conclusion that people who researched and wrote about humour lacked in the very thing that they were writing about. Nevertheless it was interesting reading.
The Laughter Yoga Blog outlines three theories of humour. The first of these is – The Incongruity Theory. For those less literal, me being one, Google defines incongruity as, something that is incongruous. This didn’t help much with my understanding of the word so I searched for an example and came up with, an impeccably groomed woman who keeps a messy house. From this I came to the conclusion that the word meant contradictory or ambiguous. Or perhaps of having a double meaning.
But anyway I digress, the Incongruity Theory of humour suggests that we laugh at things that seem logical and familiar but are altered to be things that don’t normally go together. This certainly explains why we all laughed when I suggested that to overcome a fear of dogs becoming wheelchair bound was the option. An able bodied person deliberately becoming disabled so they might not fear dogs, ridiculous, hahahahahahhaha. It really isn’t that funny. To some who are living fulfilling lives in a wheelchair and have done so for many years you can kind of understand why they might have found my gaffe unfunny. I guess it all depends on ones experience and perspective.
The second theory of humour was, The Superiority Theory. This theory suggests that we laugh at someone else’s misfortune because it makes us feel superior. This is where my use of humour in the example I provided becomes a little more unacceptable. It suggests we laughed because we thought that being able to walk and not need a wheelchair was a superior state of being. Of course it is nothing of the sort. It is where sensitivity needs to come into the argument and shows when I made my gaffe that sensitivity was lacking to the extreme. I was lucky indeed that my colleague was able to see the funny side because it could so easily have offended.
The third theory of humour is The Relief Theory. This theory suggests that we find things funny when we are in stressful situations. Humour allows us to break the ice. In the example I gave we were all in a professional work situation where we were expected to be professional and serious. My gaffe allowed us all to laugh and relax in each others company. In a sense it was an ice breaker between us. It certainly worked because we had an engaging and enjoyable conversation thereon.
Make no mistake with the gaffe I made I GOT LUCKY. I got lucky because it is so easy to cross the line with disability humour. The difference between what is funny and what is offensive is sometimes often a very thin line. There is a train of thought that suggests that disability humour should be used only by those who have a disability or a strong association with disability. Such individuals can walk the talk. Some people feel that if you have no experience of disability and use disability humour that this is belittling and excluding. Disability humour used by people that have no experience of disability tends to highlight that they see the state of disability as a lesser thing or an object of fun. Disability humour used by people who themselves have a disability is often based on experiences that they have in life.
That said a very esteemed colleague of mine often admonishes me about my use of disability humour. My colleague feels that disability humour is, more often than not, unacceptable. She believes this because, “Laughing at something that hurts us, is not as simple or therapeutic as it sounds.” The truth of the matter is often that, “Laughter at disability always benefits those who don’t want to come to grips with what disability means.” These are wise words because disability humour often belittles and demonstrates that society does not value people who have disabilities. The use of words like retard and spastic, in particular, demonstrate this.
My colleague is one of the prime reasons that I am writing this article because she has made me really analyse why I laugh at certain things and certainly has made me more cautious. Nevertheless I maintain that there is a funny side to disability. For example comedian Adam Hills is lacking in a leg. He often makes jokes about his lack of a leg. But his jokes are funny because they are based on his experience which we can relate to our own real life experience. What follows is a great example, and yes I found it hilarious. “ I went out with this girl once, we had been together for a little while, and we got back to her place for the first ever time. It was that moment of kind of sitting, you know, on the edge of a bed, and she went, ?ooh, do you want to stay the night,? and I went, ?oh, yeah all right.? She went, ?Oh, okay, I’ll be back in a second.? And she walked out of the room. And I sat there going, awww oh, shit. I haven’t told her. Well now what do I do??You know what I mean? Well I can’t wait for her to walk back in and just go, ?Look! [pretending to hold up his prosthetic] It fell off.? I considered doing a magic trick with a blanket [pretending to flourish a blanket and reveal not having a second leg]. I sat there for ten minutes thinking a) where has she gone for ten minutes? And b) How am I gonna bring this up in conversation? What can she say to which I could naturally respond. ?Really? Well I’ve got one leg!? [gestures in that direction] I’m not making this up. She came back in the room and went, ?I’m really sorry, I’ve only got one pillow.? [pauses for laughter, then repeats gesture] Ta da! She went, ?ah, that explains it!? ?It explains what?? She said, ?I spent half an hour at dinner rubbing your foot under the table and you didn’t notice.”.?
This is really funny to me because as a deaf person I have been in similar situations. There always comes a moment when you are courting a would be partner who is hearing that you have to disclose your deafness. Unlike Adam Hills and his missing appendage deaf people usually cannot hide their deafness for very long. But we can relate to Adam’s turmoil and, in particular, the worry that others might think less of us. It is almost a relief that there is another person in the world who has had a similar experience to us. Knowing this we feel less isolated and more a part of the world. Many deaf people will have experienced the moment where we must take out our hearing aids. More embarrassingly we have had moments where we have left our aids in and they have begun to whistle loudly just as we were getting near to the crucial moment. It is a real life example and it makes us laugh. As a friend pointed out to me the joke works because, “.. it invokes the vulnerability and emotions of both the disabled and able bodied parties. And it’s told by the disabled person who is well within their rights to poke fun at themselves. It’s human, it’s awkward and he still gets the girl.”
Generally speaking with disability humour one should ask themselves in terms of disability whether the joke encourages empathy, whether it promotes understanding, whether it makes people feel closer to people with disabilities or more relaxed. If it does then it is probably the right type of joke. If in doubt, leave well alone.
When a joke belittles and marginalises people with a disability it has crossed the line. A good, or rather a shameful, example of crossing the line is highlighted in an article printed in the British newspaper the Guardian titled Getting a Laugh Out of Disability This article highlights an incident where ex Chelsea and Wimbledon footballer, Vinnie Jones, belittled people with an intellectual disability on the British version of Big Brother. In the show a participant was strutting around in a chicken costume. Jones called the participant a retard. He then apparently began to walk in a way he considered a “Retard” to walk. For me, and thankfully most of us, the word RETARD used in this context is among the most offensive that can be used. It is used to portray people with an intellectual disability as lesser beings of lesser value. When humour crosses this line it is unacceptable.
But I maintain that there is a place for disability humour. Used correctly, in the right context and by the right people it can portray people with a disability as an integral part of our society. Indeed disability humour can either, “include or exclude” If the humour highlights the every day challenges and experiences of people with a disability in sensitive and humorous way, as shown in the example of Adam Hills, it is a good thing. If it is nasty and devaluing it should be avoided at all costs. It is possible for us all to laugh at disability but but it is often a fine line. If in doubt, leave well alone.
And on that note I will leave you with another Adam Hills joke, completely un-disability related:
“`So I told a joke about an inflatable boy who went to an inflatable school where all the students were inflatable, all the teachers were inflatable, and all the buildings were inflatable. One day he gets into trouble for bringing a pin to school, and the headmaster says `You’ve let me down, you’ve let yourself down, you’ve let the whole school down’.”