I’m dining with friends. These pals, like me, are rarely silent except when eating or anesthetized. Yet, I managed to bring the conversation to a standstill. I didn’t grab all the forks or pick up my white cane and hit someone on the head. What I did was more transgressive to the social order.
The talk had turned to our fave TV shows. Visually impaired since birth, I said I loved a skit performed once by a comedy troupe of writers and actors with disabilities. In the satire, an actress, who was blind, dressed up like Vana White in “The Wheel of Fortune.” With her cane, she pointed to the vowels.
I don’t know which discomforted my dinner companions more: that I unashamedly enjoyed the joke, the comedic routine itself or that I subjected them to hearing about it.
I do know that I heard them gasp and become quiet. After a mumbled “ha, ha” or two, people picked up their forks and regained their power of speech.
I’m glad I didn’t tell them the joke about Helen Keller’s favorite color (corduroy). Or that Helen Keller, who starred in a vaudeville show in the 1920's, liked to tell jokes. When asked how she felt about Warren Harding, she said, “I have some fellow-feeling for him, he seems as blind as I am.”
(The upcoming publication of my Helen Keller poetry chapbook has me thinking a lot about humor and disability these days.)
My dinner companions were non-disabled. Though witty, kind and smart, they didn’t have, what crips like me would call a disability culture consciousness. (Some of us with disabilities, as a form of pride, call ourselves “crips.” We use the word to reclaim epithets.)
My buds aren’t bigots and they don’t dislike people with disabilities. (They have the good taste to hang out with me.) Yet, their stunned response to the Vana White skit is a subtle, indirect outgrowth of ableism.
Ableism is a term for prejudice against people with disabilities.
Crips called it “handicapism” until the term “handicapped” (with its reference to a beggar standing with his cap in hand) became as outdated as web-surfing on dial-up.
Sometimes, ableism is overt bigotry (as when an employer refuses to hire someone because he or she is disabled). More often ableism is manifest subtly and frequently unconsciously. People shy away from or laugh nervously in the presence of a disabled person. Or think “they’d make a great friend, but I wouldn’t date one of them.”
I don’t mean to pick on my friends who I love like I do my family or to send more messages than a listserv gone berserk. I do mean to say that ableism, however unintended, is real and that it often is connected with attitudes toward humor.
Every blind person I know thought the Vana White bit was funny. Not because it ridiculed people who are visually impaired. They laughed, as I did, because the performer used her white cane (the implement that we use to get around) as a means of participating in and satirizing the kitsch of pop culture.
Disability culture is an artistic and cultural movement that recognizes the bigotry that disabled people encounter and celebrates the creativity and difference of people with disabilities.
Relax! Put your tissues and barf bags away. Disability culture painting, poetry, dance, theater, cartoons and fiction isn’t of the maudlin disease-of-the-week variety. Crip creative artists are making art, using their talent and craft, not bowing before the altar of “inspirational” icons.
They, along with a small number of their non-disabled peers, are creating images of crips, in all of our variety. Depicting, without embarrassment, our different bodies and showcasing our varied personalities and perceptions.
If you can’t accept that people with disabilities can be sinners as well as saints, funny as well as sad, and frauds and fakes, you’ll never “believe that we’re fully human,” my friend George Covington, a legally blind writer in Alpine, Texas told me in a phone interview.
This is true in art as in life and in comedy as well as tragedy.
There’s the rub.
Though many of us with disabilities live with severe limitations, our lives don’t seem tragic to most of us. Contrary to what some non-disabled people might think, we aren’t floundering in a fog of gloom.
Perhaps, that’s why some people feel uncomfortable when a disabled person tells a joke, my friend Beth Haller, an expert on disability and the media told me in a recent telephone conversation.
“Some people see having a disability as a humorless, tragic existence,” Haller, associate professor of mass communication at Towson University, said, “so they don’t get it when someone with a disability is being humorous.”
Our culture teaches people not to stare or laugh “at the handicapped.” Of course, some able-bodied people (or “AB’s” as some crips call you) gawk or giggle at crips behind our backs.
It’s not by accident, that a groundbreaking 1997 anthology of poetry, fiction and essays by people with disabilities (edited by poet and writer Kenny Fries) was called “Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out.”
But once they get over the cultural injunction against staring, Haller said, “people can get over themselves and laugh” at disability humor.
That is when it’s funny.
As is the case with other groups, “jokes” about disabled people are sometimes told to keep crips in our place–to assert or display dominance over us. Able-bodied people may find it hard to tell the difference between amusing or political disability humor and oppressive jokes. For crips, the difference though sometimes subtle, is usually readily apparent. Like telling art from porn.
The joke about Helen Keller and corduroy can be viewed as a disability culture joke, Haller said, “because as a [completely} blind person Helen might have thought of colors in terms of feelings.” But many other Helen Keller jokes (like the one about her burning her ear on the waffle iron) are told by able-bodied people to demean the competence of people with disabilities, says Kim E. Nielsen, author of The Radical Lives of Helen Keller.
“In jokes....Helen Keller sometimes is used, as a synonym for incompetence and the inability to function, to insult others,” Nielsen writes. (Keller, who was deaf and blind, lived from 1880 to 1968. She was an author, Radcliffe College graduate, lecturer and vaudeville star.)
The current movie “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” makes me think a lot of my friend the late poet and writer Mark O’Brien. I met O’Brien when I interviewed him in the mid-1990's at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He died at age 49 in 1999
O’Brien became paralyzed from the neck down when he contracted polio at age 6. He spent much of his time in an iron lung. But, he lived a good life – earning a B.A. in English from the University of California and writing three books of poetry (“Breathing,” “The Man in the Iron Lung,” and “Love and Baseball”). He had a girlfriend and was the subject of an Oscar winning documentary “Breathing Lessons.”
Like Jean-Dominique, the (now deceased) French womanizer and fashion editor whose story is told in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” O’Brien’s life had many difficulties. But like Jean-Dominique, his sense of humor, spirit and mind were never impaired.
Jean-Dominique had lock-down syndrome. Though mentally alert, he could only communicate by blinking his eye. When he heard that people referred to him as a “vegetable,” he asked, “What kind of vegetable? A carrot? A pickle?”
O’Brien joked that he was the world’s greatest “non-action figure.” His passions in life were Shakespeare and baseball. O’Brien pitied me for living outside of Washington, D.C. He knew how bad our baseball scene was and how wretched the humidity is in the summer.
“Move to San Fran!,” he wrote in the last e-mail he sent me, “for better baseball, better weather—better sex!”
I leave you with an elegy I wrote for O’Brien.
Dying for Shakespeare
for Mark O’Brien
Who knows why?
Maybe, you just got lucky.
You were the last one
to get polio–
to live in an iron lung.
by the swosh, swosh, swosh
of your day-glow yellow
“Is he a monster?”
a little girl asked
“What can he do
in there?” wondered
a priest who came by-
offering forlorn prayers.
Better off dead,
Listening to the radio,
as the Red Sox
played the Yankees at Fenway Park,
the swosh of the lung
mingling with the smack
of the ball against the bat,
gave you air
even as you gasped
you risked your life–
leaving the lung
to see “Midsummer’s Night Dream”
outdoors under the moonbeam.
“I’ve never felt more alive,”
“than when I nearly died
Originally published in the
2005 Winter/Spring issue
of Kaleidoscope Magazine