There 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)