Saturday, June 5, 2010

Should disability be funny?

photo of scooter in accessible parking

- by Keith Hosey -

South Park. The Family Guy. Glee. Fill in your own blank. There’s no shortage lately of comedies that have characters with disabilities. Depending on your age, you may have been told not to stare at people with disabilities. When I was growing up, I was told not to make fun of people different than myself.

Should we laugh at disability? I’d like to make myself clear… I believe teasing, taunting and mean spirited gestures have NO place in our world. But is there such thing as “good clean funny”? Sarah Palin was outraged at Family Guy when the character Chris dated a girl with Down Syndrome, but Andrea Friedman, the actress who voiced the girl has Down Syndrome herself and is an advocate for people with disabilities. Friedman said herself she felt a good sense of humor is healthy and that she positively portrayed a person with a disability.

I have to agree. Her cartoon character was independent and anything but stereotypical, which added to the comedy… and reality. If some groups should be left out of comedy how will they ever experience true equality? I think that, like the boom in stereotypical gay guys in 1990s, it "normalizes" the experience. I do believe that the growth in representation of gays in the 1990s helped that group experienced the growth in acceptance that it did in the ‘90s and ‘00s. It’s not all good and there is always room for more appropriate representations, but comedy and humor are natural extensions of life, they are equalizers. If you exempt a group from healthy ridicule, you exempt them from equality. But that's just my opinion.

What do you think? Should disability be funny?

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  1. One of my colleagues tweeted about your blog and I felt compelled to do the same...and to respond too. My friend, I have a number of disabilities -- a club foot, possibly a mild case of cerebral palsy. Through my childhood, teen years, and young adulthood, I was haunted by the fact that I was different than others -- that my foot was different, that I walked with a limp, and that I couldn't do a lot of things other boys my age could do (sports, for instance). I was down, depressed, introverted. As I came to accept things I could not change, my outlook changed. And part of that change was learning to laugh about my disabilities, to find the humor in what others fear. Just recently, the possibility of cancer resulted in the loss of one of my testicles. (Luckily, the biopsy showed no sign of cancer.) In time, there may be a need for testosterone replacement therapy. Did I get down and depressed? Nope. Rather, I accepted what had to be done, I share my story with others to raise their awareness about testicular cancer, and and I joke about my loss and my new prosthesis, which is my own weird sense of humor I've named. Humor is part of life, just like suffering, joy, sadness, and happiness are part of life. To deny humor for individuals with disabilities would be as you say, to exempt them from equality.

  2. This is a really interesting post.

    I'm inclined to err on the side of caution and be more critical of jokes about disability that I see as being at the expense of PWD. Our society is steeped in ableism, and I think it's important to point out the small ways in which is makes up the context of our cultural lived.

    But I am definitely not the the authority on it. I recently posted about xkcd and Natalie Dee's casual use of disabilities (dyslexia and Tourette's) for humor, and I got some valuable pushback from folks who actually had those disabilities.

  3. I think jokes about pwd are perfectly fine as long as the joke isn't about the disability. In the case of the South Park episode, most of the jokes were about her personality which was very unstertypical. I also thought it was funny because it turned the whole fuzzy feeling story of "pwds are just like everyone else" on its head as Chriss yells it in frusteration.

  4. Humor is a wonderful thing, no matter the subject. Why should pwd be excluded from it? I like your distinction. Teasing, bullying, and being made fun of is different, and that is what is not acceptable.

  5. Robb, RMJ, zellie thank you all for your comments. I (Keith) am a believer that "laughter heals all wounds". Robb, I was born with severe bilateral club feet, myself, and have certainly had to laugh in the tough times to keep my sanity. RMJ, I am definitely not advocating for poor taste humor (which is basically what South Park, the Family Guy and others generally produce).
    I think this post boils down to my belief that if we exempt a people with disabilities completely from comedy fodder, then how can I say that I want to be treaded the same as any non-disabled person? As Zellie said, it put a spin on "pwds are just like everyone else" (I think in a good way). I think sometimes comedic spoofs break myths and misconceptions as much as advocacy can. But that's just my opinion.

  6. Last night's Family Guy was a repeat of the controversial Down Syndrome episode and my partner and I watched it. I loved the ending where Chris Griffin realized that PWDs are just like everyone else as Zellie mentioned above. It was a powerful statement, something I believe that was overlooked amongst all the controversy.

  7. My 4-year-old son is autistic, and when I started blogging about our life, including some of the funny/fascinating things he says and does, some people were horrified. They were even more horrified when I said, "Sometimes autism is funny."

    I think the distinction between mean-spirited bullying/teasing and the kind of humor that allows us to laugh at ourselves a little bit is important.

    My son loves for me to blow on his tummy. Then one day, he demanded, "Blow on Mama's tummy!" So I dutifully lifted my shirt and he blew on my ab area (or where it used to be before two kids) for a few seconds.

    Then he stood up, lowered my shirt and shook his head sadly. "This tummy is too big," he announced. And just turned and walked away.

    It's funny because it's true.

    Viva la difference!