Saturday, February 20, 2010

Disability humor: How does it feel to be the only nondisabled person in the room?

I guess it's better late than never to weigh in on the issue surrounding the Family Guy controversy involving humor about disability.

As I've written about before, the subject of humor and disability is a ticklish one. I live surrounded by humor about my disability. In fact, I'd hate to be a quadriplegic who didn't have a sense of humor. but it's a lot different for me to make a joke about my disability than to be turned into a joke by someone else. People I highly respect in the disability community have pointed out that humor about disability,when created by people with disabilities, is the most acceptable form. Interestingly enough, however, disabled people are sometimes told what we can or cannot laugh at about ourselves, perhaps because it makes nondisabled people uncomfortable.

For example, the other day when I was on Twitter, I saw Roger Ebert tweet that he was giving up eating and drinking for Lent. This is an example of a form of personal disability humor, one that I often use. It would come across a lot differently if someone else made this joke. That's an important distinction.

Nondisabled people sometimes say they don't understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate disability humor (i.e., jokes that demean, objectify, label and dehumanize people with disabilities). But these nuances aren't so hard to understand. Humor is used this way in different social groups all of the time. There's a sense of appropriateness and inappropriateness about making certain jokes that all of us learn to navigate within and without various social cultures.

The problem with the disability community and humor is that our society is far behind in accepting the fact that there is a disability culture. It's yet another step for it to be recognized and treated with the equivalent respect of other cultures. Because of this, people are slow to perceive that they are held to a standard of social appropriateness when it comes to making jokes about disability. There are examples all over the Internet of inappropriate disability humor, if you can even call it humor. Not a day goes by where I don't read a comments section, a blog post, or a tweet and see inappropriate, crude attempts at disability "jokes". It's rampant. But I think this debate about what jokes are appropriate is like putting the cart before the horse, at least to some extent.

First our society needs to recognize disability culture , which has its own rules, as well as diverse opinions. Like any other culture, we aren't going to agree all of the time, but there are certain basic standards of conduct that exist.

Secondly, as long as negative assumptions about disability continue to be tolerated in our media, language and institutions, attempts at disability humor will contain the worst of those assumptions. Not recognizing this can turn a discussion about a particular incidence of disability humor into a worthless academic exercise. We need to look at the roots behind the problem when offensive jokes are made. More importantly, we need to find solutions to the issues that keep people with disabilities disenfranchised and out of the mainstream.

Next, it is time for those of us with disabilities to speak up about these issues. For so many years, issues of mobility, low employment rates resulting in poverty and other factors have kept the voices of disabled people silent. This has changed as technology levels the playing field somewhat, at least online. Suddenly people with disabilities are present- in chat rooms, on Twitter, on Facebook, on blogs, etc. When we speak out, it isn't for the purpose of "educating the nondisabled" (which is not our job), but to express what our thoughts are on a particular subject as a person living with a disability.

This is an important distinction. Some nondisabled people are ineducable or unwilling to be so. They feel it's appropriate to put the burden on the disabled person when they are the ones who feel uncomfortable being around us. Some of them use sophomoric humor to deal with their discomfort. This is inappropriate in and of itself. Those of us with disabilities know what it feels like to be the only disabled person in the room. It is time to ask the nondisabled to shoulder their responsibilities in this regard as we finally assimilate into our society, as we should have done years ago.

When we look at all of these issues, it's clear why some people are having a hard time listening to the thoughts of a disabled actress who played the part of the disabled character in Family Guy about the situation. Yet it's important to recognize the progress inherent in this situation- that the part was played by a disabled actress, for example.

It's also time to deal with the real issues.


Tomas said...

Wow! Thank you for the great article.
Your question "How does it feel to be the only nondisabled person in the room?" is worthy pondering deeper for sure.

I am the disabler, yet what does that mean?
Though it is hard to live with the disabilities, but our sick condition gifts us more time to think about the meaning of the life than the world is used to do today.
People with disabilities appreciate the light they see much more than their healthy brothers, but didn't boast of that.
Thus our bodily weakness enables us to live the life of the spiritual giants who didn't close in themselves, but call all people to ride the sunbeam together.

So what's the disability?

Elizabeth McClung said...

Huzzah on bringing up this topic. I think also, from my own experience, of being around people with MS and other disabilities is that I just DID NOT GET IT. I knew my world, the AB world and quite honestly they probably made some jokes and because I could not imagine the effort it took or the difficulties they had, I could not appreciate that effort, and the humor that comes with it.

Yes, I still joke, but wonder if anyone gets it anymore. I hope there is more humor, and I think SCI humor is there a lot, but do people 'get' humor from different, less common disorders? A Parkinson's fog joke? Should we be allowed to tell it? Of course! Should it be part of culture - for once, we are laughing amoungst ourself instead of someone being used as the butt of a joke, being called 'short bus' or the like, and people get in a tizzy?

What, is institutionalized hate threatened by change? That's what most humor about disabilities is, disguised 'othering' - or threating that a person is an 'other' - why else would it be an insult, would people call each other the R word in films, or use gimp, or crip, make the person defend the AB status. So when we start making humor that threatens to exclude them......doesn't feel so fun now, they think.