Cultural codes of conduct tell members of many societies not to laugh at people who are physically different. Also, many non-disabled people who fear disability perceive having a disability as tragic, pitiable, or just plain sad. A disability organization's publication explains, "There is little that is intrinsically humorous about having a disability. Concomitantly, there is little that is inherently morose, sorrowful or tragic about having a disability.
Many people in the community at large perceive disability with sympathetic and lamentable attitudes. Because of that, they resist or oppose attempts to juxtapose humor and disability" Baum, , p. Albrecht says disability humor "raises a hidden paradox that makes people feel uncomfortable. What is so funny about having a disability when others think it is a tragedy? Yet, historically, disabled people have been a source of amusement for non-disabled people. For example, individuals with disabilities were used as court jesters, exhibits of curiosity in "freak shows," or as cartoon characters with comical speech and sight problems.
Constructive positive humor "creates positive environments where people support each other, promote self esteem and create mutually beneficial connections. Destructive humor does the opposite" Baum, , p.
Destructive humor sets disabled people apart by poking fun at what are seen as their inadequacies. There are genres of disability jokes and humor, just as there are ethnic jokes. One renowned disability genre is the Helen Keller joke.
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On the surface the jokes may seem mean-spirited by making fun of the famous deaf-blind woman. Example: How did Helen Keller burn her face?
Answering the iron. However, joke scholar Barrick argues that the jokes grew from media attention given to Keller's life through the movie, "The Miracle Worker," and its subsequent rebroadcast on television, as well as new federal legislation in the s that began to mainstream disabled children in public education. Barrick reports that Helen Keller jokes grew from the "sick joke" genre, which often targeted disabled people.
Example: What has legs and can't walk? Humor scholar Dundes argues that the growing visibility of disabled people in society spawns joke categories that focus upon them. He explains that sick jokes about quadriplegics "attempt to recognize and articulate the public's discomfiture in the presence of armless, legless, or otherwise disabled individuals" , p. Barrick agrees, saying Helen Keller jokes and those about disability in general assist society in dealing with more visibly disabled people mainstreamed into society and the accompanying civil rights that people with disabilities demand.
He says ethnic jokes have cropped up in the same way; for example, a rash of Jewish jokes cropped up after the "Holocaust" was broadcast on TV in the late s. Other research has shown that the changing role of women in 19th century U. The irony depicted in humor may reflect society's early awareness of the tension between the status quo and the new" p.
For instance, in a cartoon from , a woman president is surrounded by female judges, politicians and generals. From below the podium observing the inaugural are female soldiers, sailors and businesswomen. A lone man in the corner cares for a child Johnson, , pp. Such cartoons reflected male concern for the growing independence and power of American women. Barrick believes the Helen Keller joke provides a similar purpose in society. How can you hate someone who makes you laugh?
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However, Barrick's thesis does not account for those missing in the construction of the jokes or humor: people with disabilities. Helen Keller jokes and sick jokes about quadriplegics were created by non-disabled people for other non-disabled people. Without disabled people involved in the creation of humor, these jokes can be read as insulting and patronizing.
That's why John Callahan's humor, and that of other people with disabilities, truly revolutionizes disability humor. Callahan's humor merges sick jokes and disability themes, coupling them with the powerful message of being drawn by an artist with a disability. Callahan "confronts disability with a raw humor in newspaper and magazine [cartoons] that have drawn praise and condemnation, with people who have disabilities taking both sides" Keveney, , p.
Other disabled humorists also have taken control of "sick humor. However, disabled humorists must contend with the legacy left by Helen Keller jokes and sick humor - that these jokes and humor are for children or insensitive adults. Most adults "know better" than to laugh at such things. Fred Burns, a disabled comic, noted, "The thing I found from the beginning is that when you're disabled, unlike other comics, audiences don't want to laugh at you.
They're taught all their lives not to make fun of handicapped people. That was the challenge - to get them to laugh at their concepts of people who are disabled" Coddon, , p.
Rick Boggs, a blind actor and performer, says a focus on disabled people as inspirational, or only in the context of a serious subject, means society does not get to see the diverse qualities of people with disabilities - especially that they like to laugh and have fun just like anyone else. Boggs tried to counteract this in a series of cell phone commercials in which he told the audience of the virtues of cell phone service from a chilli dog stand, a museum, a Las Vegas wedding chapel and behind the wheel of a convertible, which was hooked up to his friend's tow truck.
Boggs says, "There are a lot of roles out there that portray how admirable people with disabilities are, but we need more like my character, someone who's not only capable, but fun. Someone you'd really want to know" Tillotson, , p. An international disability organization, Rehabilitation International, reports that when done correctly humor can build bridges between disabled and non-disabled people. Kolucki says humor is a good way to convey "messages concerning the assumptions that non-disabled people make about life with a disability or people with disabilities.
Humor is a bridge over the awkwardness many people feel when approaching a new or unfamiliar situation" p. She also suggests messages received through humor are remembered longer than those presented without. Additionally, humor has long been a way for many groups to confront oppression. A number of ethnic and social groups have used humor as a way to protest against those who would put them down.
Simmons identifies seven forms of protest humor among oppressed groups:. Some disability humor mirrors type five in which cartoons in disability publications attack the helping and health professions by illustrating how little they understand about the disability experience.
For example, the disability rights publication, Mouth, regularly runs cartoons by Scott Chambers, who often confronts the medical profession. One of his cartoons shows a doctor at a mental hospital extracting a patient's brain, saying, "You won't need this any more! The "Pelswick" cartoon embodies some of type-seven protest humor because Pelswick usually triumphs over his nemesis Boyd, the bully.
But, Callahan's "Pelswick" also has moved past overt protest humor toward a humor of equality -- the disabled character is equal in status and humor to all the other characters. Others have established the healthful benefits of humor. Many people with disabilities have incorporated humor into their worldview to cope with the barriers they often encounter in society. Many newly disabled wheelchair users "incorporate humor to aid in the healing process and many are able to laugh at themselves and their situation," according to Sheridan's analysis of disability in the media.
Sheridan, Humor among people facing problems indicates high self-esteem, according to a laughter expert Morreall, It is because he feels good about himself at a fundamental level that this or that setback is not threatening to him" , p. Humor is a good method to cope with even horrific situations, from concentration camps to the September 11 attacks. When confronting an event like Sept. John Mythen, who created Claude, a cartoon character who is a wheelchair-using dog with multiple sclerosis, says, "Humor is good for the body and soul" Claude's world, b.
Carol Sowell says in a muscular dystrophy publication, "Laughter makes you stronger. No, it won't cure your neuromuscular disease, but it helps you master the things you can control - your own attitude and, sometimes, other people's reactions" For John Callahan, too, cartooning became a way for him to vent his frustrations, as well as laugh at the world that does not easily accommodate a person with quadriplegia. A car crash paralyzed John Callahan from the chest down at the age of He retained limited use of his arms and learned to draw using his left hand to apply pressure and the right hand to guide the pen.
For about 20 years, Callahan has been known for his biting and controversial gag cartoons. He produced a number of cartoon books, numerous magazine cartoons, and a well-received autobiography, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot He has managed to anger many groups with his work, from feminists to disabled people. However, he remained steadfast in his cartoons' assault on political correctness. Callahan says, "America's got this horrible political correctness thing.
I'm like a vulture feeding off political correctness" Tilley, Callahan says of his topics:. His insightful work fits with a statement about the mission of someone who draws cartoons: "The cartoonist makes people see things" Hess and Northrop, , p. Despite the controversial nature of his work, or perhaps because of it, Callahan's following grew.
His cartoons and his notoriety as a quadriplegic cartoonist are now seen as moving disability humor forward. For example, The Miami Herald , which carried Callahan's work in its Sunday magazine in the s, 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, , p.
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.