Disability, ableism and humour
This week I made a joke about my disability and was asked “Isn’t that ableist?”…
Those who know me personally, know I have a wicked sense of humour. Hang around me long enough and you’ll eventually see it. I’m also a wheelchair user who specialises in helping businesses and organisations remove invisible barriers and reduce the risk of ableism. So when I cracked a joke the other day at my own expense, my partner asked me “Isn’t that ableist?”. Professionally, I talk about ableism a lot, as it is ableism that is at the core of most barriers disabled people face in society. It was my answer to my partner that “no, it’s not ableist” and him asking me “why not?” that I realised I needed to unpack this a bit further.
There are many debates happening all the time about humour and disability, so it’s understandable when non-disabled people aren’t sure if they should find something funny or not. Others in the disability community may disagree with me, and I welcome any and all comments, but this is my take on the situation. Let me give you a few examples to break it down.
- If you’ve ever watched Seinfeld, you'll no doubt remember the episode where Jerry and his friends parked in a disabled car park. I don’t remember the full details of the episode because it was so long ago, but Kramer purchased a second-hand wheelchair after a woman’s wheelchair was destroyed due to her having to park elsewhere. The second-hand wheelchair’s brakes fail which results in her speeding down a hill and having another accident. There’s more to the episode, but that’s the gist of it. Is it ok to laugh in the situation? No. Why? It’s laughing AT a disabled person, not WITH a disabled person. If you haven’t seen the episode, it’s called ‘The Handicap Spot’ — even a title that wouldn’t get passed today.
- I was at a gym and made a joke about my disability in reference to a team challenge that was going on. The challenge was to sit against the wall for as long as possible. As a wheelchair user, I took a photo of myself with my back against the wall with the hashtag #crushedit beside me. I was asked awkwardly by someone “Can I laugh at that?”, “Of course!” I said. I was the one making the joke about myself.
- The incident that inspired this post occurred this past week when nominations for the upcoming gym awards opened. One of the awards is : ‘The person who talks the talk bigger than they walk the walk.’ — I jumped on this one in the Facebook group and claimed myself the winner due to the fact I can’t walk (we shall see the outcome later this month). Is this ok to laugh at? Yes, because I’m the one making a joke about me.
So to break it down further —
- It’s totally ok to laugh when a disabled person is making a joke about themselves.
- It’s not ok to laugh at the expense of a disabled person like in the Seinfeld skit. That skit was completely ableist and made light of situations disabled people face far too often.
- You’re being ableist if you’re a non-disabled person making a joke about disabled people.
- Think about the ABC tv show Black Comedy. It’s funny as hell because it’s Aboriginal people making the jokes. If it was a white person, like when the comedy Two Broke Girls made a joke about Aboriginal people, that’s racist. It’s the same rule for humour and disability.
Other disabled folk, what would you add to this post?