Why Not Laugh At Disability?

What is the definition of laughter? The audible response to something humorous or an uncomfortable nervous reaction.

Often society tells people it is taboo to laugh at people with disabilities. I happen to disagree with this concept, for as a person with a disability, I laugh at myself and others with disabilities in appropriate circumstances. I am not laughing at the disability, but rather the person based on how I believe they will react. Many times when I do something that’s obviously uncomfortable to others. For example, if I fall, which happens quite often, I get up on my own and say “did you feel that earthquake?” Living in Minnesota, earthquakes are nonexistent; hopefully utilizing humor puts people at ease.

Before a Vikings football game, I attended a pre-game party outside the Metrodome. For those of you who have participated in home game block parties, there are many different booths; one booth in particular was raising money for food shelves. For one dollar you could throw three tomatoes at a guy whose face is outside a board and the rest of him is behind the board. The guy heckles the throwers relentlessly. Because society is taught that it is not okay to laugh at people with disabilities, I thought it would be interesting to see what the heckler would do when I came up to throw a tomato at him. Keep in mind I use a walker and have a speech impediment, but I am very strong and have a good throwing arm. Nevertheless, the heckler – let’s call him Jack – thought he needed to come closer to me so I could hit him. Jack ended up standing back a couple feet after the first tomato and did not heckle me at all.

I was very disappointed. I wanted to be heckled. I wanted to hear him say (even though I know it is not politically correct), “Come on crip, you couldn’t hit the broad side of a wheelchair!” Jack said to other people, “You don’t have the balls to hit me, how do you perform with a woman?” I realize this is a crass thing to say, especially with kids present. I was curious to see what Jack would say about disability issues. Unfortunately, he did not say anything at all. The whole audience was there to be heckled. If he had heckled me, I would have been pleased, however as it was, I walked away disappointed.

I do not live my life based on disability issues alone. I believe it is important to have a balance of activities, both personal and public. Society, including the disabled community, needs to loosen up and not be so afraid of people’s reactions. Many people I know laugh at themselves and others. I have a friend who is blind. I have called him a name that is humorous between him and me: “The blind boy.” Keep in mind that he is thirty-five years old and is not a boy. He has called me a name I know society hates: “Crip.” I don’t mind because it is done with humor, because of the walker and my speech impediment.

I realize that some things I say may not be very politically correct; however, who has ever said that life is always right or just? For example, if my sister and I go somewhere, I will point out that “all the crip parking has been taken.” This comment irritates my sister because she hates the word “crip,” even though she has a disability herself (though her disability is not very visible). My mom, on the other hand, finds “crip parking” humorous. It is my opinion that if people, disabled or not, would loosen up and laugh more, they would not be as on edge about how they react with one another.

The “person first” language is important to understand; it is important to have humor about it as well. Person first language puts the person before the disability. For example, instead of saying “I am going to talk to that blind guy over there,” the correct person first vocabulary would be to say “I am going to talk to that guy who is blind.”

It is my opinion, though, that this person first language has a couple of definite shortcomings. First of all, it assumes that it is not okay to have a disability. I view a disability as a characteristic, one of many factors that make up the whole person. With this model, a disability takes on no more or less meaning than hair, eye color, or height for that matter. We would not say, “I am going to talk to that guy who is tall;” we would say, “I am going to talk to that tall guy.”

If we accept the concept of a disability as a characteristic, the disability is a part of the greater whole. To put the person before the disability suggests that the disability is somehow negative or detracts from the person. Another way of looking at this is with another example. No one would take offense to being called “smart.” “I was talking to that smart guy” wouldn’t be viewed as a negative statement. Who are we to judge?