Disability Humor: What are we Really Laughing At?

The other night, I came across the OWN Network’s new travel show, Rolling with Zack. The host, Zack Anner, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Yet, this guy goes surfing, water-skiing, and even rock climbing on his show. I’ve got to say, that’s cool. Kudos to OWN for showing that people with disabilities can do something on television other than playing Rain Man.

And yet, one segment of the first episode of RWZ bothered me. In it, Zack goes to Millions of Milkshakes, a shop in West Hollywood, to create a milkshake and have it named after him. No, I was not bothered because I was jealous. 🙂 I was bothered because Zack christened his creation the Handi-Cappuccino.

I will be the first to admit, self-depricating humor has its uses. If I’m uncomfortable in a certain situation, I’ll sometimes use it. But rarely, if ever, has CP been the subject of that humor. To be honest, “disability humor” often makes me wonder if we–people with disabilities–are only perpetuating what Robin M. Smith and Mara Shevin call the “tragic, but brave” image. Or worse, are we perpetuating the concept of “special,” the idea that we constantly need help, and the idea that the only reason we exist is to teach people how to be unselfish, open-hearted, and basically saints? (Yeah, good luck with that. If you want an example of somebody who hasn’t learned this lesson, reread the story about the bus driver in my previous post).

After the Handi-Cappuccino incident, I Googled “disability humor”. I found a few examples that could be considered actually funny, such as:

Q: Why did the blind person quit skydiving?

A: It was scaring the heck out of his dog. (Proof that people who are blind can skydive if they want to, and the “special help” they get from guide dogs can sometimes be over-emphasized–though if you have and love a guide dog, more power to you. They can be great companions, from what I hear).

On a T-shirt: “Stairs–the final frontier”–with a person in a wheelchair parachuting down a flight of stairs. I can relate to this one; some days, stairs do feel like quite an obstacle. But guess who climbs them–and grins when the numbers on her pedometer go up? Right–that would be me.

And then there are those that make me groan or say, “Holy flipping crumb, what are they thinking?” For example, I love “You might be ___ if…” lists, so of course, when I saw a list entitled “You know you have a disability when…” I investigated. This “gem” of a list included such things as:

-You get excited over a gadget to wipe your own bum

-You can talk to your grandma about drooling and wetting your pants (thank God someone in my family understands)

-You meet another disable and can talk about their bowel program within five minutes

-You change hospital appointments because they conflict with your hospital appointments

-“Pimping your ride” means putting spokey-dokes in your wheelchair

With insincere apologies to the person who made this list: What. Is. This. Crap? You are a person with a disability. You deserve to be treated and thought of with dignity. Yet, your way of injecting humor into a serious situation is to paint yourself into a stereotypical box. You have perpetuated the stereotypes that:

A. All people with disabilities need or use wheelchairs

B. All people with disabilities spend a great deal of time in hospitals because they “have something wrong with them” or “are sick”

C. (My least favorite) All disabled people are incontinent or, at the very least, spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about how to deal with urine and stools.

Oh, and here’s another little jewel: the cruel kind of humor that, directed at any other group, would be at the very least, highly suspect as hate speech.

Why Beer is Better than Retarded People:

  1. Beer doesn’t drool
  2. Beer stains are easier to remove than drool
  3. Beer will wait patiently in the car while you play
  4. Beer doesn’t ask loud, embarrassing questions in public
  5. You don’t have to limit yourself to bi-syllabic words to communicate with beer
  6. Beer doesn’t demand to watch cartoons

I’d like to find the person who wrote this doggerel and dump two liters of beer on his shrunken head.

Reality check, Beer Boy: Sterilization is a crock. A caseworker in my high school suggested I be sterilized once, and my mom and I nearly had her head. In truth, I love kids. I’m a teacher-in-training with additional years of tutoring experience. I probably know what kids need a lot better than you do. And I’d like to see you go through labor–and if you’re a woman who has, boy, do I feel sorry for your children. As for the rest of it: I have met several people with Down’s Syndrome, autism, and other forms of what you insensitively call “retardation” in my lifetime. None of them drool. I communicate with them the way I would any other person. And so some of them like to watch cartoons. So what? I happen to love a good cartoon or animated movie. And I once saw a college student–without a disability–on my campus carrying her stuff in a Disney Princess backpack–because she LIKES THEM. I guess if cartoon or Disney-watching is your criteria for mental disabilities, we’re all guilty.

Okay, back to the point. See what I mean? “Disability humor” can be downright cruel–in fact, it can be hate speech. Failing that, humor written by a person with a disability can actually harm a lot more than help–and no one’s laughing.

So, what types of disability humor are “appropriate?” Well, unfortunately, my Master’s degrees aren’t in stand-up comedy. But Robin Smith and Mara Shevin had a pretty good idea in their article. When you–if you have a disability or not–see an example of this humor, ask:

  1. Is it laughing with, or laughing at?
  2. Does it perpetuate the idea that there’s a line between “us” and “them?”
  3. Does it make me feel ashamed of, sorry for, angry at, or otherwise feel negative emotions toward, people with disabilities (including the “tragic but brave” complex?)

These are just a few of the things we can ask ourselves, but it’s a good start, I think. And now, to close with a piece of my own disability humor (true story):

As an undergrad, I went to the registrar’s office to request a transcript. The woman at the desk tells me I need to fill out a form to get one. So I tell her, “I can’t write with a pencil; can I dictate that for you?”

She says,

“You want a pen?”

Ignorant people. Gotta love ’em. In retrospect, I should’ve said: “I’d prefer a box of 64 Crayolas–the scented, sparkly kind, if you please.”



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