Disability Humour – Yea or Nae?

itThere are certain subjects that people think are taboo. This  can be race, gender, death, disability and host of other things. Yet comedy has touched on these subjects and worse for many years. Particularly today where comics seem to have lost the art of innuendo and choose to get their laughs through shock value.

Let’s face it, most of us have all laughed at blonde jokes. Most of us have laughed at racist jokes too . Did you hear the one about the English man, Scotsman and Irishman … The Irishman will always be the fall guy. Then of course it’s usually the Irishman’s lack of intellect that we laugh at which leads to us making fun of intellectual disabilities … Yet we laugh regardless.

But one persons funny is another persons offensive.  For example the man with no arms and no legs who went swimming, his name is Bob. Here we are clearly making fun of amputees but we are also using a pun in the play on the word and name bob. The pun is funny but should the circumstances of a person with a disability be used to get a laugh? Some would say no, some will say yes and others would say it depends on the intent. Nevertheless, humour that involves disability is nearly always contentious. (This is true of nearly any humour that is targeted at disadvantaged groups including gender based humour.)

Personally I think there is a place for disability humour. I mean people tease me about being deaf all the time. I love it. I see it as a measure of their acceptance. I love it that they feel comfortable enough to laugh when I mispronounce words. I love it when they fall about hilariously when I don’t hear alarms and just go on my merry way. I just see it as part of the human experience. Just as long as we are all laughing together I see no harm. But I accept that other people with a disability may not share my view and this is often based on their past experience of their disability. This is particularly so where they have been bullied and victimised.

For me it is the struggles that non-disabled people have in their interactions with people with a disability that are most amusing. Whether it’s colleagues calling me on the voice phone to apologise for forgetting to book an interpreter (duh). Sometimes their efforts to communicate with me are hilarious. One colleague used a gesture to try and signify GROUP but inadvertently and unknowingly used the sign for vagina. I told her not to use that sign. She asked, “why not?” And then it hit her, “ Oh my god I have been signing vagina havn’t I?” We laughed until we had tears in our eyes and it took quite some time to compose ourselves. Quite embarrassing when you are in the middle of a meeting. These interactions between disabled and non disabled can be hilarious.

I am a great fan of the comedy show The IT Crowd. There is one particular episode that had me in stitches. In this episode one of the characters, Roy, is in a pub for a work outing. Roy goes to the toilet. He is busting but all of the cubicles are taken. His desperation leads him to use the accessible toilet.

He finishes his business and goes to flush the toilet but accidentally pulls the duress alarm. Staff at the pub run to his aid and break down the door. He throws himself to the floor  and pretends to be disabled. They find him curled up on the floor. Whereupon he claims that someone has stolen his wheelchair. You can watch the skit below, unfortunately I could not find a captioned version.

I found the skit absolutely hilarious because it highlights the absurd ways that non-disabled people behave when confronted with disability. It is a great examination of attitudes and also highlights why people who are not disabled should not use accessible toilets. You can bet that the accessible toilet that Roy was using is the only toilet available for people with a disability. It is disability humour at its best because it is funny and it creates great awareness. (Plus you can bet that thousands of watchers of the show were laughing at their own embarrassment at having sneakily used an accessible toilet because all the other toilets were being used.)

But too often disability humour is just offensive and cruel. In 2012 Joe Hildebrand, a journalist, tried using disability humour to explain his experience of customer service at Sydney Airport. Hildebrand Tweeted, “.. I just want to say that I think it is great that the Sydney Airport is providing so many jobs for the mentally handicapped.” For his trouble he copped a spray from the late and great Stella Young at the now defunct Ramp Up

Said Stella, “Hildebrand’s tweet is offensive because it uses disability as a shortcut to mean “crap”. And in doing so, he reveals a subtle and no doubt unconscious contempt for disabled people that is still rife in our culture….” And there lies the crux of the matter. When people start to use disability to signify lesser, inferior, worse and incompetence it is not funny. It’s offensive and unacceptable.

I am often guilty of poor use of language which disparages people with an intellectual disability. Recently I called Donald Trump, mentally deranged. This did nothing except stigmatise people with an intellectual disability and people who experience mental illness. All too often I use the words stupid, idiot and even moron. This is offensive to all people with an intellectual disability. Indeed, many would have been the brunt of bullying at school where they were remorselessly called all of these terms.

Ronald J Berger in his article, WHAT’S SO FUNNY ABOUT DISABILITY,  makes a great distinction between what is disability humour and what is not. He uses the terms “disabling humour” and “disability humour”.  The former refers to humour that belittles and denigrates disability. This is where people are laughing at people with a disability and using them as objects of fun. Disability humour, however, explores the experience of disability and its interactions with the world. This humour enlightens and allows people, disabled and non disabled, to better understand disability as it relates to life. As Berger points out, both disabled and non disabled are laughing together.

I am sure many disabled people, like me, do not want people to take them seriously all the time. I am sure they, like me, know that disability can be ironic and the experience of disability can be very funny. It is not all tragedy and heartache. The trick is to laugh with us and not at us so don’t be frightened to use disability humour. Rule of thumb, if your not sure or if what you are about to say is making you uncomfortable, don’t say it. It’s probably offensive.

On that note, I’ll leave you with a great example of Disability Humour …

Funny things happen to me in my wheelchair. Being a quadriplegic I have no use or sensation in my hands. I slip a kind of large insulated cup onto my wrist to lift a can or small bottle of drink to my mouth. I call it my cooler. I was sitting outside of the Treasury Casino one night when a lovely woman came by and dropped a few coins into my cooler! OMG, wheelchair pity, she thought I was some kind of handicap street beggar. (Taken from the Mad Spaz club)

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A Slip of the Tongue

simProfessor Alan Mackay-Sim is the Australian of the year for 2017. Mr Mackay-Sim is a distinguished scientist. He is a trail-blazer in stem cell therapy research. Mr Mackay-Sim’s work has far reaching consequences. It impacts on the treatment of people with cancer, spinal injuries and even conditions of the brain such as Parkinson’s and schizophrenia. Make no mistake, Mackay-Sim is a brilliant man and his work will impact positively on the well-being of many people in the years ahead.

Imagine using stem cells to be rid of the debilitating tremors of Parkinsons. Imagine having a severe spinal injury and being fixed so that you can do all the things that you once used to do. Maybe not all of them but at least be independent and mobile. Imagine the deaf having their nerve cells restored so that they can hear again. Perhaps livers and hearts can be repaired rather than having to rely on transplants and years of drugs to prevent rejection of the new organ. It is no small thing that Mr Mackay-Sim has done.

In his acceptance speech for Australian of the Year he excitedly proclaimed;

“We must, as Australians, prioritise our spending so that we can afford not only to look after the disabled and the diseased in our community, but to look at future radical treatments that will reduce future health costs,”

He further went on to say;

“More than 10,000 people in Australia have a spinal injury and we add to that tally by a person every day and the cost to Australia is about $2 billion annually.”

And with that he upset many in the disability community.

For a while I stopped writing. I needed to think over the message I wanted to convey. In years gone by I would have had the tendency to get stuck into Mr  Mackay-Sim for the gross disrespect that he had just shown to people with a disability. But I decided to enact the 24 hour rule and think it through. (Such is the wisdom that comes with the mellowing of age.)

At home that evening I sat down to continue my binge watching of HOUSE on Netflix. For those that don’t know, HOUSE is the medi-drama/comedy that stars the very talented Hugh Laurie. HOUSE is a brilliant diagnostician doctor. He can diagnose anything eventually. He is also a seemingly dry and emotionless man. (But we all know it is really just a façade and he is kind, gentle and caring soul.) With a stare into the distance and twitch of the nostrils we know he has got it. Like Holmes said do Watson, it was seemingly elementary.

In this particular episode HOUSE is treating a woman that was previously blind. She had a cornea implant and after years of not being able to see she suddenly could see. But she was not happy. What she saw was ugly. It made no sense to her. It did not make her happy. It engulfed her with sadness and horror. Said HOUSE, “Even seeing cannot change your misery”

And the disability activist in me loved HOUSE. I loved him because he was suggesting that the world of abelism is not what we all think it is. I loved him because he was telling the world that there is more to life than just what able bodied people think is utopia, There is a blind life, a deaf life and a disabled life that is no different to any life. Its all about values and experience. There is no one way to happiness. This I believe.

And then he spoiled it. He chopped off her skull. He did this and that with her brain. He covered her eyes in bandages. After mutilating this woman in this way he stood before her hospital bed. “HOUSE”, she said, “I can smell you.” Yes, this previously blind woman had not lost any of her blind talents. “Back to blindness, back to ordinariness.”  Said HOUSE, ” … I will take the bandages of your eyes and what you will see will be far better than what you ever saw before.” (The dialogue is my paraphrasing of what was said, it is not the actual dialogue)

You see there had been some kind of brain injury. This brain injury had impaired the woman’s ability to perceive images as “normal” people do. The miracle of brain surgery would restore her sight as it should be. And so HOUSE removed the bandages. The woman looked around and at the face of HOUSE. “How do I look?”  asked HOUSE?  And the woman smiled. The illusion of the perfect world of blindness was shattered. Seeing was everything.

BUT WAIT!!! Just in my last Rebuttal I professed to being scared witless at the thought of loosing my sight. As a deaf person I need and want my sight. All I had was cataracts and I was literally a nervous wreck. Seeing to me is everything. It lets me continue to do all the things that I love. What am I? The worlds biggest hypocrite? Given the choice I would never, ever want to be blind.

But that is because I have learnt sight. In fact if you are born blind and suddenly find yourself seeing you apparently have to learn sight.  There was some very interesting research done about people who are given sight after being blind since birth. It is apparent that the restoration of sight is no fairy tale. “… first moments for the newly sighted are blurry, incoherent, and saturated by brightness—like walking into daylight with dilated pupils—and swirls of colors that do not make sense as shapes or faces or any kind of object. The moments immediately following bandage removal are not quite as ‘magical’ as Hollywood movies would have us believe,” Apparently nothing the newly sighted person sees makes any sense because sight is not innate and must be learned. There are even documented cases where sight has been given to a born blind person and it has been so traumatic that they wished that they were blind again.  Read full article here.

While I do not want to be blind that does not mean that the life of a  line person is crap. There are clearly many happy blind people who are very satisfied with their lives. This goes for deaf, wheelchair users and other people with a disability. What Mackay-Sim has done, probably unwittingly, has devalued the life of people with a disability. He has assumed that being able bodied is the thing to be and with his statement he has labeled every single person with a disability as lesser, and worse, a burden to society. This is sad because with a slip of the tongue he has undermined all of the great work he has done, at least in the eyes of many people with a disability.

That said disability is not always a great thing. It can be painful, stressful and sheer hard work. There is no doubt that many people with a disability, given a choice, would jump at the choice of having their condition eliminated so they can be free of pain and fully independent. All well and good but this does not justify labelling people with a disability as lesser and a burden and Mr Mackay-Sim needs to be mindful of that. For the record, people with a disability are a thriving economy providing employment for thousands of people around the world estimated to be in the trillions of dollars. Be it care, technology, professionals or equipment there are many people that owe their livelihoods to people with a disability. Mackay-Sim being one of them.