Funny or Not? How and When to use Therapeutic Humor with Persons with Disabilities [PART 1]

Funny or Not? How and When to Use Therapeutic Humor with Persons with Disabilities [Part 1]

by Jennipher Wiebold, Ph.D. and Penny Willmering, Ph.D.

wheelchair cartoonHaving a disability is not always tragic; in fact, many aspects of life with a disability can be filled with joy, irony, and humor! With that said, how does one know if and when it’s okay to use disability humor? What’s politically correct? What’s respectful of diversity while recognizing the humor in it? How can we use humor in a therapeutic way? Why is it important to know about therapeutic humor? As professors and people with disabilities ourselves, we hope to help answer some of these questions.

The most important thing to consider is CONTEXT. Context is everything. For example, the concept of “in-group” humor is typically humor about the “shared” experience, in this case, the disability experience. But what about those who are not part of the group? The concept of “outsider” use of humor does not include the shared experience of disability. So why do “outsiders” use disability humor? That is the million dollar question! It may be for the purpose of negatively portraying people or characteristics of a disability, an attempt to identify with a disability experience one has never had, or an attempt to connect around a disability issue that is poorly timed, out of context, or just not funny. Outgroup or outsider use of disability humor when not applied in the right context, can quickly be experienced as negative, paternalistic, mocking, or stereotyping of disability.

General rules of thumb to follow are:

  1. Would you make the joke in the presence of a person with a disability?
  2. Is the joke with the person or about the person?

Take this example:

The actions of candidate Trump were the topic of much discussion; both from an “in-group” and “out- group” perspective. In this example, he was talking about and appeared to be mocking Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist, Serge F Kovaleskiat, who is an individual with arthrogryposis multiplex-congenita.

(For information about this disability that causes issues with joint contractures, click here)

Applying the guidelines shown above, this is not a positive behavior as it is not inclusive of people with disabilities. Furthermore, it would not typically be told in the presence of a person with a disability. By making the joke about the appearance of a person with a disability, it creates the “us” versus “them” dynamic.

We believe the joke focused on differences in a negative way rather than celebrating differences among all people. Some might say the joke is also an example of bullying, which makes it even less funny, and certainly not appropriate.

Although we think it was intentional, not all agree that this was the case.

Tune in for our next blog, and instead of giving a wrong way to use disability humor, we will provide a few examples of the right way!

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