Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Disability Humour Is Part Of Disability Culture

Disability humour is part and parcel of disability culture. If you tell me that I shouldn’t make disability jokes in public, you’re telling me that it’s not ok for me to be who and what I am as a person with a disability. You are trying to stuff me back in the closet that we (people with disabilities) fought so hard to get out of.

A couple days ago I tweeted a disability-related joke. One of my followers took offense. We discussed it a little bit and in the end G3ict said:

Sweethart, you can crack jokes & poke fun at everyone, and laugh at yourself in the mirror = but not in a public forum!

The tone of the message felt patronising, which is something people with disabilities often experience – and which doesn’t help to make us receptive to such comments.

But more than that, my problem is that the implications are we shouldn’t make disability jokes in public.

Dark disability humour is an integral part of disability culture.

People with disabilities regularly make jokes at their own expenses. These jokes may appear offensive to some people. The people who take offense are often people who don’t have a disability. Other people are just uncomfortable with this kind of humour. And maybe that discomfort is a reflection of their general discomfort with people with disabilities at large, I don’t know.

It wasn’t so long ago that people with disabilities were kept at home, behind closed doors. Attitudes aren’t all that changed, not when you scratch below the surface. It was only 10 years ago that I was told by someone "I pay taxes so people like you can stay in nursing homes". I am reminded on "NIMBY" – Not In My Back Yard.

People with disabilities shouldn’t be seen, and if they are seen, they should behave according to what is expected of them – be a good little boy, sweethart.

Well, no! I’m not going back in that closet. I am what I am, get used to it! And that includes me cracking disability jokes. In public.

You may also be interested in reading Wheelie Catholic‘s post on the matter of disability humour – she makes some great points.

6 thoughts on “Disability Humour Is Part Of Disability Culture

  1. You are right, ABs don’t like PWDs making fun of themselves.

    I am thinking of John Callahan, a politically incorrect cartoonist who was a quad. This is a quote from one website (http://www.dsq-sds.org/article/view/431/608)

    “The Miami Herald, which carried Callahan’s work in its Sunday magazine in the 1990s, reported: “When we get complaints about his handling of the subject of disability, they are almost always from people without disabilities themselves. And whenever we hear from the physically disabled, individually and through organizations promoting their interests, what we hear is loud and enthusiastic applause” (Callahan, 1998, p. 89). Commenting on a cartoon showing a spinal cord injury center with a notice on the door saying “standing room only,” the Miami Herald editor said, “The truth is you shouldn’t have to know that Callahan himself is disabled to realize that his cartoons are not ‘poking fun at the handicapped.’ The reason why our disabled readers love Callahan is that they don’t misread him.” The cartoon doesn’t make fun of wheelchair users. “Here’s a clinic specifically designed for the disabled – presumably run by able-bodied doctors who don’t understand the needs of the people they serve. Standing room only. The joke’s on those of us who can stand” (Callahan, 1998, p 90).

    So well said! My experience is too that people don’t laugh at crip jokes (and I am not even going to go into the little issue of how ABs think it’s wrong for a para to call himself a crip). Sometimes when I am waiting in a store line, people let me go ahead of them. I usually comment that they don’t need to do it as my legs won’t get tired since I am already sitting down. Not a single person ever laughed at it or commented.

    A friend of mine who is blind always shared his blind jokes with me. They were hilarious, I always laughed and he appreciated it. Twenty years later, I still giggle at them, such a nice memory…

  2. The argument that “disability humor” is part of “disability culture” doesn’t hold much water. That’s being politically incorrect in public. Why do we scream hoarse when men pass blonde jokes or Black jokes? How about jokes related to someone’s cognitive abilities – whether they REALLY are cognitively challenged or not? Where do you draw the line Mr Steenhout?

    @Elisabeth: It’s called empathy. We would do the same for pregnant ladies, elder / senior citizens, someone walking on crutches because of a sprain, a lady carry extra bags – we are helpful like that, some humans.

  3. @Nilofar, I stand by my statement – disability humour IS part of disability culture. Anyone who has done any reading or research on the topic of disability culture, and what constitutes it would know that humour is part of culture.

    Politically incorrect? You betcha! Irreverent, too. I refuse to be politically correct, not for the sake of political correctness anyway. I do pay attention to the power of language, for sure. But the key is to not “demean, objectify, label and dehumanize people with disabilities” (to use Wheelie Catholic’s excellent words).

    FWIW, I find it interesting that none of the dozen or so twitter followers I have that I know have vision impairments had any issues with the joke I made…

  4. I quite like the last paragraph on People with Disabilities – a Blog for Learners.

    “Barger – an anthropologist – is speaking about the experience of encountering a culture different from one’s own, usually part of ethnological fieldwork. Disability culture isn’t geographical – but the it’s just as real. Barger’s advice – to take one’s reactions as a piece of evidence about assumptions rather than a statement about whether the joke “really” is or is not offensive opens the door to real exploration of assumptions – to reaching understanding.”

  5. @Nilofar: I am not sure what you mean. Oh, I see: you mean that people are patronising to others they perceive as in need? Even though it might be totally illogical because they don’t need the help? The rule is that you observe if the person needs any help and then you offer it and if the person refuses, you accept it.

    Who says politically correct is the right way to go? It destroys the culture because people can’t freely joke. It destroys our cultural heritage when it comes to fairy tales as those were never PC. Gone are three pigs in Germany because the Muslims cry wolf (piggies are unclean).
    So, to honour my little country, here is one of my favorite jokes. If the joke is on me, am I still wrong?
    “A Czech comes to heaven. St. Peter is showing him around. They come to a special room with many clocks.
    ‘What are these clocks about?’ asks the Czech.
    ‘Those are clocks of stealing. Each nation has one clock and according to how much they steal, the clock runs faster. Here is USA, three hours ahead. Here is Russia, six hours ahead.’
    ‘Where is the Czech clock?’
    ‘That we have in the kitchen as an air conditioner.'”

    Which reminds me, Czech is a perfect example how intrinsic humour can be for the survival of a group. The more politically oppressed we were, the more jokes we told. Humour is part of a culture, why wouldn’t it be part of disability culture? The only way it couldn’t be would be if the particular culture experiences no persecution, discrimination and weaknesses thus has no need to laugh at itself.

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