Abstract

While able-bodied people may perceive the lives of disabled individuals as "tragic," disabled people often do not believe that to be the case. This paper argues that one way this incongruity might be mediated is through the use of humor and storytelling to create a space of understanding and portray disabled people as having independence and agency. The paper analyzes humorous stories told by disabled individuals in a variety of social situations, interacting both with able-bodied and disabled communities. While disabled people are often positioned by society as helpless, spiteful, and/or lacking agency and control, by telling comic stories, individuals can position themselves on their own terms, and subvert dominant ideologies.


Disability studies scholars stress the importance of humor in helping to enable successful communication between disabled people in peer groups, among friends who do not share similar disabilities, and when communicating with temporarily able-bodied individuals (TABs) (Burbach and Babbitt; Shakespeare). Along these lines, Tom Shakespeare writes, "Disabled people have discovered and proved that impairment is not the end of the world; that it does not undermine subjectivity or possibility, and they have demonstrated this by developing an alternative comic language around the body" (51). Within disability communities, some have chosen to call these kinds of jokes "crip humor," reappropriating the term "crip" to frame it in a positive light (Albrecht 73).

While this kind of humor serves an important social function, it has not been studied as intensively as disability humor in cartoons, comics, and texts. As Robillard suggests, little critical attention has been paid to "specific interactional situations where, in the course of interactions in real time, disabled people and able-bodied use humor as a way of integrating the disabled into the ongoing social surround" (62-3). While research has been conducted on joking behavior among groups of disabled people, these studies have tended to focus on how joking can serve to cement group cohesion, distinguish in-group from out-group members, and function as a means to poke back at dominant society and assert agency (Burbach and Babbitt, Rosquvist, MacPherson). At the same time, these studies have not considered how humorous narratives may serve a social function, both inside and outside of disability communities, and particularly when shared with able-bodied individuals. The focus of my research, then, was to interview disabled people about comic stories they tell that are related to their disability, and understand how they might integrate these stories into everyday communications. Many of the stories addressed ways that disabled individuals combated awkward moments with a witty remark, found comedy in potentially uncomfortable situations, or otherwise used humor to interact with able-bodied people, and challenge ableist perceptions of disability.

Crip Humor and Personal Narratives

Along with humor, telling personal stories can be an effective means to create a space of understanding and identification between individuals. This is certainly true when considering disability narratives. Mark Mossman alludes to this power of storytelling when he states:

As a person with a disability, I believe that telling stories, both in my scholarship and in the classroom, is doing something, making something happen, for telling stories, in the social context of disability, articulates the rhetoric of social change, enacts the autobiographical process that enables the disabled subjectivity in part to make itself, to take some measure of control and volition in its own construction. (652)

Storytelling not only creates connections between the teller and listener, but it can be a way for disabled individuals to articulate their identity and lived experience. Mossman further suggests that telling stories can be a form of activism, as it gives individuals the potential to "resist the oppressive force of a master discourse by taking control of his or her narrative and constructing it as he or she chooses" (653). While constructing and telling one's own narrative does not guarantee that an individual will be able to change the way she is perceived by others, it is still a means to express agency and counter notions of disability that may be imposed by others. As Overboe notes, storytelling about disability can potentially "[validate] both a disabled embodiment and sensibility…By shifting the notion of an identity which is devalued to a lived experience that is validated causes a change in approach [to disability]" (23).

Both storytelling and humor can be methods to debunk commonly held stereotypes about disabled people. Disabled comics in particular unite these two modes of expression in their routines, as Reid, Stoughton, and Smith note, "Their stories and presence onstage also counter prevalent ideas that disabled people are unhappy and long to be 'normal'. Finally, they reveal that their lives are full, rich, and well worth living" (633). Equally important, these stories can "open a space for dialogue about what it means to be disabled, about relationships with one another, and about the relationships we share. Comedy educates, because it represents disability, potentially leading to changes in social behavior and even social policy" (Reid, Stoughton and Smith 639). Yet while crip humor may be socially and politically transgressive, we must remember that its success or failure depends on both the teller and audience.

Miriam Corker points to the potential of crip humor as "an emancipatory praxis," yet she emphasizes that analysis of this humor can be difficult, since, "As with most forms of humour, the key to our 'comedy' lies in solidarity and context…the humor of disability is in its inscription by disabled people and the particular way in which it jokes with 'disability'" (81). As Corker suggests, crip humor can be read in numerous ways, and it is easy to interpret a joke in a manner not intended by the joke-teller. The key to crip humor often lies in having a disabled teller, as well as an audience who understands the teller's perspective and worldview and thereby "gets" the joke. As Corker suggests, "Disabled people's comic narrative do not travel well in the non-disabled world when disembodied from this sense of solidarity or when decontextualized" (81). In other words, the humor of a comic story about disability could be read in multiple ways depending on the perspective of the audience member in question. Interpreting crip humor relies on specific contexts: who is telling the joke, who is laughing, why they are laughing, and what those individuals know about the disability in question. Different people may laugh at the same story for a myriad of reasons, so some people may laugh with the disabled person, while others laugh at the disabled person. For this reason, crip humor has the potential to simultaneously break and reinforce stereotypes.

This type of storytelling may also reveal the ways that disability is not a fact, but a social construction. In other words, disability is not always an inherent condition of the body itself, but based on expectations of what bodies should be able to do in a particular society. As disability studies scholar Georgia Kleege notes, "Some days, and in some contexts, my blindness is at the forefront of my consciousness. Other days it is not" (4). Kleege reflects that many of her regular tasks are not disrupted by her visual impairment, yet other people are afraid of blindness since it would threaten their ability to drive and be independent (29-30). In an environment where driving a car is not an issue, however, a visual impairment might be far less disabling. Similarly, wheelchair users who spend their days working in an office at a desk may not feel "disabled" until they need to take an inconvenient route around the building to access an elevator.

At the same time, as disability studies scholar Eli Clare points out, we must delineate between disability as a social construction, and the "real lived physical limitation" that some people with disabilities experience (4-5). Clare suggests that it can be difficult to separate disability as social construct and disability as embodied fact. Some limits may be posed by society and others by disability, yet both are equality vexing (Clare 6-7). Joking with disability can be one way to relieve some of the tension of this frustration, as well as reveal the ways people negotiate a disabling constructed environment.

Narrative and Positioning the Self

I focused my analysis on the way disabled individuals used humor to present themselves within their stories. To do this, I employed a model of narrative discourse suggested by Michael Bamberg, who emphasizes the idea of "positioning" when telling personal stories:

'Being positioned' and 'positioning oneself' are two metaphoric constructs of two very different agent-world relationships: the former with a world-to-agent direction of fit, the latter with an agent-to-world direction of fit. One way to overcome this rift is to argue that both operate concurrently in a kind of dialectic as subjects engage in narratives-in-interaction and make sense of self and others in their stories. (224)

"Being positioned" relates to how people in a society see an individual as fitting into the world. For example, can the individual in question move freely in their surroundings, or do they have difficulty negotiating the physical space? Do they blend in to the social atmosphere, or do they stick out in the crowd? "Positioning oneself" relates to how individuals see themselves as fitting into the world, and whether they perceive the world as allowing or impeding them from making such a fit possible. It follows that stories by disabled tellers can reveal how the social and physical world permits or bars disabled individuals from finding a good "fit."

Bamberg also explains that when individuals tell stories, "speakers work up a position as complicit with and/or countering dominant discourses (master narratives). It is at this juncture that we come full circle by showing how subjects position themselves in relation to discourses by which they are positioned" (225). This is an important facet to consider when analyzing stories about disability, since narratives about disabled people told by TAB individuals may position disabled individuals as helpless, spiteful, and/or lacking agency and control. These narratives suggest that disabled people are socially as well as physically disabled, and unable to function in dominant society. Comic narratives by disabled people often work against these notions of social and physical disability, suggesting ways that disabled people are "able" and not hindered by disability, and/or suggesting ways that TAB individuals may be physically or socially "disabled" in certain situations. In telling their stories and employing humor, disabled people can position themselves on their own terms, portray themselves as having independence and agency, and potentially subvert dominant ableist ideologies.

The Stories

I interviewed seven disabled individuals over the phone, Skype, through in-person interviews, and one extended e-mail conversation. Of the participants, two have visual impairments, one has a hearing impairment, three use wheelchairs, and one uses a prosthetic foot. The participants range in ages from twenty-one to forty-five, including two women and five men. One participant was a black American, one was a white Canadian, one was Egyptian, and four were white Americans. All were born with their disability.

I categorized their stories according to the function of the joking behavior in mediating relations with TAB individuals. Across these categories, the disabled individuals generally positioned themselves as having control of the social situation in these interactions, even if that meant the ability to find a situation comically absurd as opposed to frustrating. These stories reveal that the world is rarely a good "fit" for these individuals, but that predicament is often created by ableist cultural constraints and disabling environments, rather than the disabled body itself. These comic narratives reveal how disability is often not a "fact," but a social construction dictated by societal norms.

Revealing Disjunctures in Worldviews

Thomas is a college professor who has been hearing impaired since childhood. For several years he integrated jokes about his disability into a stand-up comedy routine. Thomas reads lips and uses a hearing aid, but must often explain to TABs why he speaks the way he does. He explains, "My favorite thing to say over and over: People ask me *a lot* where I'm from. 'You have an accent!' they say. 'Oh, I'm from Wisconsin,' I say. 'No,' they say, 'I mean what country are you originally from?' So I say I'm from Deafmark."

The TAB individual asking the question becomes the butt of the joke, since they do not believe Thomas is from the United States. This question also reveals an assumption on the part of TABs that individuals who do not have a visible disability must be able-bodied. Ironically, when Thomas says he is from "Deafmark," he confirms that he is from a "different place" in terms of his worldview and means of communication. As Albrecht suggests, this kind of crip humor has a mediating social function that "allows us to understand better the lives and trajectories of disabled people; to understand what it is like to span two worlds and cultures. Disjunctions between these two worlds are the basis of humor" (72). Thomas is able to find humor in this disjunction and maintain control of the situation by answering the question in a teasing way, cuing the questioner to his hearing impairment. He also corrects the misinterpretation that he must be from "somewhere else," yet Thomas's creation of the fictitious country of Deafmark both affirms and denies the attempt of TABs to "other" him by situating him as a foreigner. He is different, he suggests, but not in the way they first perceived. Additionally, as Freud noted, jokes can often hide a conscious or unconscious hostile impulse on the part of the teller (123). In this instance, the joke might suggest to the listener, "If you won't believe I'm an American, I'm going to have a little fun with you."

Thomas used this story in his stand-up routine, and still uses it to combat awkwardness when communicating with hearing people. He notes, "For example, if a student mumbles in class and I have to ask that student to repeat once or twice, I might tell the 'Deafmark' joke to ease the student out of a situation in which he or she might feel embarrassed in front of a group." As Shakespeare writes, these interactions between disabled and TAB individuals can be muddled by "anxiety and tension" which "prevents communication progressing or rapport developing. Disabled people, if they are to enter the everyday world of social engagement, must develop skills of interactional management in order to put the other at their ease" (49). While Thomas used comic stories to interact with comedy club audiences that had limited experience with hearing impaired individuals, he still relies on such stories "occasionally in a situation that requires humor…Usually something instigates me needing to tell such a story."

This story would likely evoke a sympathetic kind of laughter, identifying with the teller in his exasperation at not being believed, and at the questioner who demands an answer that fits their presuppositions. In the "Deafmark" story, Thomas both acknowledges his disability and suggests that it is not important since he is accustomed to this way of being. In laughing, the listener may also convey their understanding that while Thomas comes from a different "place" in terms of how he experiences the world, this is not a factor that should impede communication.

Another comic story that mediates these conflicting worldviews is told by Eric, a college student and amputee who is a wheelchair user. He explains that when he was working as an intern in a Congressional office, he had to "train" other members of the staff to understand that it was acceptable to joke about disability. He enjoyed making "legless jokes" at work, but notes that he was accustomed to having a TAB audience that accepted his humor and found it funny. In contrast, the other Congressional staffers weren't used to those kinds of jokes, and often gave him odd looks. Eric explains, "In the office it was situational things. They would step on my foot and be like, 'Oh I'm really sorry,' and I would be like, 'It's okay, I can't feel it.' And they would pause and say, 'Oh, yeah, that's right.' Then it would be funny." In this instance, the TAB individual is the butt of the joke since they assume they have hurt Eric and apologize unnecessarily. Since they forget that he has no feet, the apology becomes a comic "expenditure" of action "that is too large" (Freud 235).

Eric positions himself as being in control of the situation through giving others permission to laugh at disability. He is intentionally creating humor, since he wants to joke about disability in a Congressional office, a location he finds absurdly comic. This story also suggests the power disabled individuals have to turn a potentially tragic situation into something humorous. The person who stepped on his foot is reminded that Eric does not have legs below his knees, yet they are able to laugh as opposed to mourn the situation. Some of the laughter this story elicits from listeners may also come from Eric's performance, including his broad smile and obvious glee recalling the story of someone stepping on his foot. It is the opposite reaction than one might expect, and thus has the potential to create a shift in the listener's thinking about disability. The joke makes space for a moment of reflection that may sensitize TABs to the comedy of crip humor, and potentially allow them to see disability as merely another form of embodiment that Eric considers to be "no big deal."

In this story Eric also reveals the socially constructed nature of disability, since he reflects on how he was accustomed to a community in which his disability was "normal" and not considered tragic, but then he moved to a new social context in which that was not the case. Eric had not often told this story at the time of our interview since it had happened fairly recently, but he explains that the kinds of stories he tells are dependent on audience, since "People in disabled communities are used to this kind of humor, [but] I'll be careful with certain individuals who aren't accustomed to it." While he may take different approaches to disability and humor depending on context, in this story he encouraged his co-staffers to reconsider their notions of disability and comedy, and revise some of their previous beliefs.

A third story that reveals the disjuncture between TAB and disabled worldviews is told by Amanda, a college student with a visual impairment. Her impairment is not always apparent when she meets new people, and she often finds those misunderstandings to be comic. One kind of interaction that makes her laugh is when sighted people want to shake her hand, and patiently hold out their hand without realizing she cannot see it. As Amanda explains, "What I learned when I met my ex [boyfriend who is blind] is that you should tell a blind person 'Hand out,' when you want to shake their hand. Somebody will tell me somebody else has their hand out [for a shake], and I'm like, 'Oh. Oops.'"

In this story, the disabled individual and the TAB individual both become the butt of the joke because of their misunderstanding. The story reveals two different sets of assumptions about how the world works, yet neither individual realizes the disjuncture. As Amanda explains, there is a clear difference in perception between the visually impaired and TAB worlds, since the former often relies on auditory cues, while the latter assumes everyone uses visual cues. The TAB person is the butt of the joke, since they do not realize they need to give Amanda an auditory cue. At the same time, Amanda could be perceived as the butt of the joke since she doesn't realize that she needs to cue the TAB individual to her disability.

Amanda has used this story as a teaching tool, and "told the story to sighted people to illustrate the point of why they should hold out their hand. Most of them tell me that they never thought about it before I brought it up." She adds that this technique is probably familiar to many blind people, since "The 'hand out' method is something that the NFB [National Federation for the Blind] centers use." This story is an example of disabled people not finding a "fit" in the TAB world, yet Amanda suggests this breach in communication is not a tragedy. She depicts herself as having control of the situation, since she can shrug off potential embarrassment. The end result is not the fault of either party, but a laughable and ironic moment since information is being assumed but not conveyed. This joke suggests a mutual responsibility, yet the resulting laughter may be difficult to interpret. Some audience members might laugh at the "poor blind person" who didn't see the extended hand, yet other would laugh with Amanda at the miscommunication. The nature of the laughter might depend on the relationship audience members have with the teller, but could also depend on their response to her delivery. Amanda finds the joke quite funny, so it is hard not to laugh with her as she explains this aspect of blind culture. We cannot discount that her telling could shift the attitudes of some listeners to see the comedy of the situation in Amanda's favor. Her story also suggests that while using humor may be one of the best ways for disabled and TAB individuals to communicate, when communication is lacking between the two parties, the result can be comic.

Finding One's Actions Comic

Another way that disabled people use comic stories to mediate interactions with TAB individuals is through finding comedy in their own actions, taking potentially "tragic" situations and reframing them in a humorous way. One such story is told by Nathan, a college graduate in his mid-twenties who has been blind since birth and is an assistive technology specialist. He explains that when he was in eighth grade playing basketball with his friends, he told one of them to tap the net with his cane, so he could try to make a basket. Nathan explains, "I threw the ball, and it bounced on the rim and hit my cane and broke it. We were all laughing."

Nathan does not portray himself as embarrassed by the missed shot or broken cane, but frames the story as comic and appreciates the moment of slapstick humor with his friends. The story demonstrates a moment of shared crip humor—his friends knew he would not mind if they laughed, no one needed special "permission," and Nathan allowed himself be the butt of the joke. Though he is in a sense further "disabled" when his cane breaks, he also constructs himself as "abled" since he has the agency to make adaptations to play basketball. The story focuses on that engagement with his TAB friends, as they share the same kind of laughter. Further, Nathan's reaction to this incident suggests his agency and that he won't be stopped from playing basketball.

Nathan tells this story to TAB and disabled friends, family members, and others, and says he has joked about his disability for years. He suggests, "If you can't poke fun at your own disability then you're not very comfortable with yourself. I did it when I was a kid. I would make jokes about not having seen something in years, and people would crack up." Nathan has found emancipatory potential in making himself the butt of the joke, a means to create a shift in the thinking of his listeners as they laugh with Nathan at the slapstick moment, and shot that was perfectly aimed to break his cane. Reid, Stoughton, and Smith comment on this function of comic stories, writing that disabled individuals can "use self-deprecatory humor positively to dissolve and recreate disability. By shifting from victim to perpetrator, they undermine the power of people who laugh at them. They emerge as capable people who find life's predicaments amusing" (635). Making oneself the butt of the joke can be a means to demonstrate agency. While this notion may seem counterintuitive, positioning themselves as the butt gives disabled individuals the ability to frame their disability as comic, and suggest these mishaps are "no big deal." At the same time, while Nathan is very comfortable joking about his disability, we cannot assume this is the case for all disabled people. As was expressed to me several times by the individuals I interviewed, since many people acquire disabilities during their lifetimes, they must learn how to joke about them and feel comfortable doing so. Further, we must consider that some listeners would find the story to be tragic as opposed to comic, since they might focus on Nathan's broken cane and his inability to make a basket. This joke could potentially support ableist ideologies, if the listener laughed because of imagining Nathan as a bumbling Mr. Magoo who barely avoids disaster. Told by another individual to a different audience, the same story might be a cause for laughter at rather than with disabled people, implying that Nathan's idea that he could play basketball without seeing the basket is absurd. At the same time, this stereotype is countered by Nathan's shrug, since he is still going to play basketball and make himself the butt of the joke, finding power in not taking himself too seriously. As Corker suggests, the inscription by Nathan as a disabled teller is what makes the story crip humor.

A similar story told by Eric reveals the potential of disability to create absurdly comic situations that can reframe the notion of disability. He explains that he often joked with family members about the possibility that he might forget his prosthetic legs somewhere. "It's just the probability of you having to say that [you forgot your legs] is so small," Eric says, "and it's even funnier when you say 'Oh shoot, yeah, I did. I forgot my feet.'" On one occasion when he was in middle school, Eric forgot to take his prosthetic legs home following a wrestling match. He says, "My principal had to call my mom and say, 'We usually don't do this, but we think these are your son's feet, and we don't want to put them in the lost and found box.' My mom said, 'Eric, did you forget something?' and I said 'No, I don't think so,' and my mom said, 'Look down.' And I said 'Crap, I forgot my feet at school.'"

In this story Eric positions himself as the absent-minded butt of the joke, but he retains control of the situation through depicting it as a comic event that challenges normalizing perceptions of the body. While a middle school student may be more likely to forget a hat or book, Eric suggests that leaving his feet at school was an easy mistake, and that his feet were no more or less important than any other item. The story can be read as containing "normalizing" elements, since it is a tale of an adolescent kid being forgetful and becoming the butt of the joke through leaving something important at school. At the same time, the story is transgressive, revealing the socially constructed nature of disability, and deconstructing the notion that feet are "necessary."

Eric explains that he tells this story often, both to TAB and disabled audiences, when he needs a funny story to tell, or in social situations when someone else has forgotten something. He notes that, "There is nothing that isn't funny about that [story]." At the same time, this story has the potential to create discomfort with some TAB listeners, since the prospect of leglessness is brought to the fore. Whether laughter at this story could suggest a change in the listener's thinking about disability might depend on their acceptance of the fact that Eric went home, then proceeded to go about his evening unimpeded by the absence of his legs. Eric's ability to be without them for several hours points not only to disability as social construction, but could allow the listener to chuckle at the idea that legs might not be as necessary as they first assumed.

At the same time, Eric is cognizant of the tension that able-bodied listeners might feel at hearing such a joke, and he adjusts his joking behavior according to his audience. He reflects that he is careful not to focus on stories and jokes that relate to disability, explaining, "Certain people exclusively use disabled humor, to the point [it becomes] uncomfortable." Drew, another college student and wheelchair user, agrees with this sentiment, suggesting that when disabled people focus solely on crip humor, their sense of the comic may seem too one-note. He suggests, "You try to balance yourself between disabled humor and other outlets of humor. You don't want to be known as the guy who just tells disabled jokes." While both of them enjoy crip humor, their disability is only one facet of their personality, and they realize that needs to be reflected in their storytelling.

Advocating for Ability

Another function of comic storytelling among disabled people is to erase the notion of a distinction between what TAB and disabled people can do, and dispel false beliefs regarding the limited capabilities of disabled individuals. Drew tells a story about how he often has to confront those misconceptions, since he enjoys heavy metal music and mosh pits. These social situations often involve some negotiation with other concert attendees, as he explains, "It's always weird being in a wheelchair trying to assert yourself in a mosh pit. People ask me if I want to go to the front near the stage." When he explains that he's waiting for the pit, they say, "'You're going to mosh? Are you sure? It can get pretty rough.' I say it can't get too rough, this is what I live for." While it takes some effort on his part to make the case for moshing in a wheelchair, the results have paid off in terms of developing a level of understanding with some TAB concert-goers. Drew explains that at one concert, a woman came up to him and asked if he wanted to go to the front. He said no, he was going to mosh. "During the next song she came over and just clocked me in the face. I was like, please marry me."

While this story could be read as Drew making himself the butt of the joke, since not many people may understand why someone would want to get punched in the face, it can also be read as mocking a society that considers him too "delicate" for certain environments. The story suggests a poor world-to-agent "fit" because of the social construction of disability that assumes people in wheelchairs should not be in mosh pits. Yet Drew positions himself as someone with agency who makes the case that he belongs in the mosh pit. His description of mosh pit culture reveals an ableist belief structure since he is questioned as to whether he should be there, thinly veiling the assumption that he is frail. The comic element in the story occurs when he is able to find understanding with a TAB person, who knows he wants to be treated like everyone else. Getting punched in the face becomes an absurd occasion for celebration, since in that otherwise violent act he is being embraced by another member of the metal community.

Drew often tells this story to TAB and disabled friends, when trying to explain "the state of moshing…why I feel the need to get hit in the face at concerts…usually it's to describe what a mosh pit is and why it's necessary for my metal health." He also tells the story "to other metal heads who are usually able-bodied" when sharing mosh pit stories, since "not many other disabled people go into mosh pits." He jokes about his disability with his TAB friends so they will "know how to deal with it. But you have to bring up enough so they know that you are a human being and you want to be treated as a human being." While laughter at this joke could connote a shift in thinking about disability—guys who use wheelchairs can also be moshing metalheads—it is important to note that Drew chooses his audiences carefully. He includes individuals who he assumes will understand his viewpoint, and those who he wants to explain himself to, since not all of his friends understand his love of mosh pits. While Drew's aim is to create a shift in the minds of listeners, either related to his enjoyment of violent environments or his disability, his careful cultivation of audience suggests his awareness of how easily a joke could become a laughing at as opposed to a laughing with. At the same time, telling these kinds of stories is a way for Drew to assert his personhood, and the fact that in most situations he does not want to be treated differently than any other individual.

A second story that reveals how people with disabilities are often more capable than they may be perceived by TABs is told by Nathan. He explains that he started advocating for himself when he was in junior high, since he knew he had to speak up for his abilities. As a college student, he was taken aback when he went his girlfriend's house for dinner and was not given a knife to cut his meat. When he asked her mother for a knife, she asked why he wanted one. He explained he wanted to cut his meat, and she said "What? You'll cut yourself!" Nathan explains, "I didn't know what to say, I sat there like, 'Seriously?' [He laughs.] I was twenty-one at the time, and I know how to cut my own meat. Some blind people don't, but I needed a knife to cut my food." This is a joke he has shared with disabled and TAB friends, and "Usually the sighted people are in disbelief and the blind people are laughing about it," but everyone asks why he wasn't given his own knife.

In this comic tale Nathan is able to show listeners his perspective, and allow them to see the situation as absurd. As Freud suggests, this kind of humor allows the joke-teller to "exploit something ridiculous in [one's] enemy" that could not be revealed without "[bringing] in a joke to their help, and this guarantees them a reception with the hearer which they would never have found in a non-joking form, in spite of the truth they may contain" (123). Nathan positions himself as someone who can confidently negotiate the world, and TAB individuals who lack confidence in him become the butt of the joke. Similar to his basketball story, without the "inscription" of the joke by a disabled teller, the story could be read in a different manner with Nathan being considered the "absurd" butt of the joke since he wants to cut his meat but cannot see it. Again, while certain audiences might direct laughter at Nathan, he tends to curate his audiences and reserve the tale for people who will laugh with him. While their perceptions on disability might shift, this change may not be due to their surprise at his abilities, but his girlfriend's mother's lack of understanding. Thus, some audiences' laughter may connote a change in perspective due to a sensitization to ableist notions. As Reid, Stoughton, and Smith write, one of the functions of crip humor is to create different perspectives on "disability" by focusing on problems that arise not from the body, but from "disabling" and restrictive environments (639-40). Nathan admits his story also speaks to the variability within disabled communities, since not all blind people have reached his level of ability. At the same time, this tale suggests we cannot make assumptions about the abilities or inabilities of any individual.

Deconstructing Able-Bodied/Disabled Dichotomy

Another function of crip humor is to twist the notion of "disability" through jokes that suggest how TAB individuals can be socially or physically "disabled" in certain environments. One such story is told by Thomas. Because he was performing in comedy clubs to a hearing audience, he had to adapt his material and use humor to negotiate with TAB hecklers:

About 75% of my routine was based on my hearing impairment. This was mainly because my accent comes from my hearing impairment, and also because I sometimes had to deal with hecklers I couldn't understand. There was always somebody who thought it would be funny to shout out something crude knowing I wouldn't catch it, but I'd hear that something was said, and say, "Wow—that's an attention span to be proud of. Hey, you, wherever you are, I just told you, I'm deaf. Dumbass."

Through his use of a comic and cutting remark, Thomas positions himself as socially able, while the TAB heckler becomes the butt of the joke since he has revealed a deficiency and suggested he is "disabled" because he didn't hear Thomas's comment. In this comic reversal, Thomas situates himself as more "able" than the heckler, who didn't heed what was said moments before. Thomas re-shapes an intolerant world into one in which he can emerge as the dominant figure, since the problem with understanding was not his fault. Laughter at this joke could indicate a shift in audience members' thinking, as Thomas skillfully negotiates a potentially embarrassing moment and maintains control. Of course some audience members might laugh at the "poor guy" who can't hear what the hecklers are saying, but Thomas demonstrates himself to be socially able by preparing himself for that occasion. In displaying this combination of forethought and wit, it is difficult not to laugh with Thomas besting his detractor and winning the audience to his side. As Freud notes, making someone else comic can be a powerful rhetorical device to sway the listener to the comic's point of view: "One can make a person comic in order to make him become contemptible, to deprive him of his claim to dignity and authority"(137). This is also a space in which Thomas can potentially find sympathy with audience members who have been paying attention to his routine. These listeners may side with him as socially "able," as opposed to siding with the annoying and socially "disabled" heckler.

A similar story is told by Eric, who reframed his disability in terms of ability when joking with his family. He explains that since he was a skinny person and had no legs below the knee, he'd often get the middle seat when they traveled on airplanes. Eric says, "Even though I was an amputee I had abilities in that I never needed leg room, I would be comfortable no matter where I was." In this comic reversal he teased his TAB family members, making them the "butt" of the joke by showing how they were "disabled" on cramped airplanes while he was comfortable. Eric says that this is a story that he tells often, both to TAB and disabled friends, "Because everyone has their frustrations with flights, and I don't have those same frustrations. It's humorous to everyone."

This story may also reflect some hostile impulse, or a certain amount of glee at the opportunity to make fun of TAB passengers on an airplane, where people without legs have an advantage. Not only does the narrative make it clear that disability is a social construction determined by environment, it does so through demonstrating that airplanes are a space in which Eric can literally "fit." His story reflects Tom Shakespeare's sentiment that "jokes between disabled people…are so shocking to non-disabled people, who can imagine nothing less funny than extreme physical difference. Reversal of expectation is always richly comedic, and there is no greater reversal than treating what is commonly represented as a tragedy as if it is a farce" (50). Laughter at this joke would seem to indicate a shift in thinking about disability as listeners imagine how lovely it would be to have more space on airplanes, with "leg room" rendered a moot paint. In this situation ableist logic is turned on its head as legs are no longer considered "necessary," but merely a cumbersome accessory when traveling.

Disabled People As Victims of Social Perceptions

As scholar Joanne Gilbert notes, comics who belong to marginalized groups often critique mainstream society by portraying themselves as "victims" in their humor (137). This technique is different than a comic making herself the butt of the joke, since these jokes mock societal standards and reveal the concept of the "normal" to be a social construction, framing the comic as a victim of senseless standards. This type of humor might seem dark to those outside the in-group, yet as Renee notes, often this method of joking is used to challenge societal notions of disability. She has a professional degree, has been a foot amputee since childhood, and says, "People think disability is such a tragedy, that your life will never be the same again. That's so ridiculous it's laughable. You bring in the humor to show people you are not an object of pity."

As an example, she explains that amputees are "very casual" about losing limbs, and joke to confront common stigmas. One of Renee's favorite stories is about a practical joke she and her roommate played on Halloween. She explains they opened their door a little bit and stuck one of her prosthetic feet outside "to see what people would do." TAB individuals who would be shocked at the sight are the butt of the joke, since they cannot imagine anything more horrific than a bodyless foot, though the real object of their terror is the idea of a disabled footless body. Renee positions herself and her roommate as having the agency to be trickster figures and play with the normative expectations of TABs. Her story mocks the perception of disabled people as helpless, while revealing that they are the victims of that misconception.

Similar to Eric's story, this joke serves to challenge the definition of a "normal" body and suggest the potential for adaptation and a casual, comic attitude toward disability. Laughter at this joke would also seem to indicate a shift in thinking on disability on the part of the listener, indicating their appreciation for Renee's practical joke. This is not a story of happenstance but deliberate joking behavior, potentially sensitizing the audience to ways individuals can "play" with disability. Renee explains that one of her favorite sayings about disability is "There are no normal people, just people who haven't found their disability yet." While people she explains this to may smile at first, she says "then there's this awkward silence." In this moment, the TABs in question realize that they are not immune to becoming disabled, yet the point of this joke is that disability is a normal process, and part of the embodied experience.

Another story that reveals how disabled individuals are often the victims of social construction is told by Joshua, a wheelchair user with a Master's degree who notes that sometimes his joking responses to questions are taken seriously by TABs. Often their reactions reveal cultural assumptions and stereotypes regarding people with disabilities. He explains that some TABs ask "questions like 'How do you take exams?' I say no, they just give me the degree, I don't have to take exams. That one people believe because people don't have high expectations of people with disabilities…other times they say annoying things, like 'You're up and about, we think you're a hero for going to school.' I say no, I'm trying to live my life." In this narrative, those who believe that Joshua was given a degree because he is disabled become the butt of the joke for failing to acknowledge his intelligence. Joshua portrays himself as a victim of the cultural assumption that living with a disability takes a great deal of courage, which falls into what Clare calls a "supercrip" stereotype. These stories "focus on disabled people 'overcoming' our disabilities. They reinforce the superiority of the nondisabled body and mind. They turn individual disabled people, who are simply living their lives, into symbols of inspiration" (Clare 2). In relating this story, Joshua counters the supercrip image by positioning himself as someone who had the agency to pursue an advanced college degree, making it clear that he was not merely handed this diploma. At the same time, he is in control of the narrative through positioning himself as a trickster figure, playing with the low expectations TABs have of disabled people. Joshua portrays himself as an educated and hard-working individual, yet he also suggests that disabled people do not "fit" into the world because they are not recognized for their intelligence, and others assume they need special treatment to be successful.

Joshua explains that he tells this and similar stories to friends who use wheelchairs, and friends who are TABs. He says, "Sometimes people would talk about the weirdest things that ever happened to them and that would be me chiming in with my stories to top them off." This may be a form of joking that is not necessarily meant to shift opinions, but to solidify group cohesion and identity with a round of we've-all-been-there chuckles. At the same time, those who are familiar with Joshua's intelligence may laugh in disbelief, indicating a sensitization toward ableist assumptions regarding disability. Joshua also displays a sense of audience awareness during these storytelling events, since he is relating the tale to friends and acquaintances who he thinks will understand the absurdity of the question and his response. He recognizes that this kind of in-group humor cannot be shared with everyone, and adjusts his joking practice accordingly: "I try not to do it around people that have a lot of empathy or supervisors that really cannot laugh at the joke, because someone who supervises you, they're not allowed to laugh as it gets tricky that way."

Along these lines, Shakespeare comments that this kind of in-group humor can be easy to misread, suggesting, "Context, interpretation, and meaning are important, because this sort of humour treads a dangerous line between challenging and reinforcing stereotype….There is no simple answer as to which jokes are offensive, and which jokes are liberatory, because it depends on nuance and intention" (52). Joshua's response could even hit a sour note among some disabled individuals, who might interpret his humor as reinforcing stereotypes of "needy" disabled people who expect special benefits.

Social Correctives and Defense Mechanisms

Crip humor can also be used as a transgressive means to assert power by poking fun at TABs and intentionally making them uncomfortable, or acting as a form of social corrective against inappropriate behavior around disabled people (MacPherson 1086; Reid, Stoughton and Smith 635). Another story told by Joshua acts as a social corrective by revealing the cultural assumption that disabled people do not or cannot have a sex life. As Tobin Siebers writes, "One of the chief stereotypes oppressing disabled people is the myth that they do not experience sexual feelings, or that they do not have or want to have sex—in short, that they do not have a sexual culture" (138). Joshua explains that sometimes he is asked personal questions such as "How do you have sex?" which might imply that the asker assumes he cannot have sex, or that he has sex in a manner that would be considered socially deviant.

When telling this story, Joshua exhibits agency in that he does not shy away from the question, but answers in a forthright and comic manner: "I'd say, I have the girl sit on a chair, then I back up and go forward as fast as I can. One time I didn't say anything I just did this" [He moves his chair back and then forward again]. While his response may strike some as clearly humorous and absurd, Joshua explains that he receives varied reactions, and that "Some people do believe it." In this story, social perceptions about disability and sexuality become the butt of the joke as Joshua pokes fun at TABs who may think that disabled people are sexually disempowered. He also mocks those who think it is their "right" to ask him such personal questions, which they would most likely not pose to individuals without visible disabilities. Again Joshua positions himself as a teasing trickster, making fun of TABs who assume disabled people are "innocent" and either wouldn't have sex, or would never lie about such matters.

At the same time, by incorporating his wheelchair into the joking response, Joshua also positions himself as someone with sexual agency who is not a passive recipient, but fits the stereotypical masculine role as the instigator of sexual activity. But Joshua adds that even in joking, his responses often have another function: to open up a dialogue about disability. He reflects, "Sometimes I use it for my benefit, as educational…I'm not too shy to talk about myself." On occasion he follows this joke with an explanation of his sexual activity, allowing humor to open a space for more serious discussions. This is a joke that could be met with laughter, either raucous or uneasy, at Joshua's forthright response and performance. While some people might blush and chuckle out of embarrassment, others might have their perspective shifted if they did not expect him to exhibit sexual behavior, or if they assumed he would shy away from the question. Yet as Joshua notes, the laughter can be a way for the genuinely curious to become engaged in a longer discussion and change their understanding of disability.

As Shakespeare writes of this kind of sarcastic joking, "disabled people can now move from the passive endurance of scorn, to the strategic exploitation of wit, to the political deployment of satire" (51). This is another story that might offend some disabled individuals if Joshua did not correct the misinterpretations of his listeners, yet he makes it clear that joking can be a segue to teaching opportunities.

Joshua finds another kind of "teaching" moment in the questions that children ask about his disability and need to use a wheelchair, explaining:

I always get asked by kids, 'What happened to you? Are you sick? And I always reply, 'Oh I just didn't listen to my mom and that's how I became this way.' One time I said I was lazy and I just stayed inside all day and so that's how I got this way. And the parents get really surprised, they can't believe I just said that, because they think it's a self-deprecating joke, but I try to put a positive spin on it by teaching the kids something.

While the children's parents realize this is a kind of joking behavior, the kids aren't always sure how to respond. Joshua explains, "They look at their mom and say, 'Mommy, is that right?' and then they point at me and then the parents get really confused and flustered because they don't know what to do." Joshua positions himself as having control of the situation by answering this question in a way that counters the parents' expectation of his response. While adults may often tease children when answering their questions, parents do not expect such teasing to happen in response to disability. Situating himself as an educational trickster with the agency to direct the situation as he sees fit, Joshua suggests he is instructing children to mind their parents and not sit around all day, and he takes advantage of what he sees as a teaching moment.

Yet the children's questions are provocative since they confront Joshua's disability head-on, something their parents would likely prefer to ignore. Ironically, the children reveal the curiosity many people have about disabled individuals, posing questions the parents may also be wondering about, but will not ask since such inquiries are not considered polite. As Thomas Couser writes, people with disabilities often have an inherent cultural "duty" to tell a story that explains their bodies and what happened to them, and they are expected to conform to a standard script that reassures able-bodied people their own bodies are "safe" (16-7). Joshua plays with this expectation, teasing the children and reassuring them that their bodies will be "safe" if they mind their parents and play outside. This story may not elicit either a laughing with or at Joshua, but an uneasy laughter from parents who do not expect disability to be cast this way. It is difficult to know how or whether the attitudes of these parents toward disability might shift. Some may feel compelled to further educate their children about body variability, and explain that there are other reasons someone may need to use a wheelchair other than being "lazy." Thus, Joshua's story also suggests ways that he doesn't "fit" into the world, since his body is always being quietly interrogated by those around him.

Some disabled individuals may disapprove of this kind of joking behavior around children, since Joshua is playing into the stereotype that disabled people are somehow to blame for their disabilities. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson notes, people with disabilities use different tactics when educating children about disability, and some consider it their responsibility to respond truthfully to children's questions and teach them about bodily difference (89). Yet others may argue that Joshua's response has the potential to begin a discussion between children and parents about disability that can continue for a longer period of time beyond that encounter.

Renee tells another story related to "educating" TABs, yet it is one that reveals the potential of crip humor to be used as a defense mechanism against prying. She explains that some people think that if you have a disability "they deserve to know more about you," so she is often asked how she lost her foot. When she feels that someone is being too dramatic about the matter, Renee tells them, "Well, I was swimming, and there was this shark… Typically this is a third date story. I draw it out until I can't help laughing." She makes her date the butt of this joke for assuming that she lost her foot due to a tragic accident, positioning him as too willing to believe the drama of the situation. Renee concurs with Couser's argument about the social expectation that disabled people explain the story of their bodies, adding that TAB individuals who ask those questions want to confirm that they could prevent such a loss by being careful or proactive. She positions herself as the victim of the societal perception that she must have lost her foot due to some great tragedy, yet she is in control of the situation through being a trickster figure and playing with the expectations of her TAB date. As Freud suggests, this kind of humor allows the joke-teller to "exploit something ridiculous in [one's] enemy" (123), or in this case, to point out the ridiculous nature of the question at hand. She explains, "The shark story is always for people who are able bodied, and normally for someone I'd want to gauge and test…[it] is prompted by someone being very concerned, and they say 'how did it happen'?" She uses the story not only as a social corrective, but to convey her attitude about disability to her date: "I often share the shark story…because it's instructive. When you deal with [disability] all your life you learn to make light of it. You don't want to have a serious conversation all the time. It's also a screening mechanism because I need someone who will laugh. I need someone who as soon as he knows as I'm pulling his leg will laugh about it."

This story also points to feelings of entitlement by TABs to ask questions about the bodies of disabled people. Disabled bodies do not "fit" into the world, since they are labeled as "different" and thereby open to study and investigation. In this manner, disabled individuals have not been able to escape the stigma as "research subjects," even at bars or on dates. Renee says she also tells these stories as a means of making connections with other disabled people, explaining, "I will tell stories about my own experience as an ice breaker…Sometimes when someone is talking to me about their experience, they get emotional or angry, so I'll throw out a funny or sad story about a time I was treated badly so they know they're not alone." As a form of in-group humor, her stories also become a way to build community, and create a feeling of understanding between individuals with similar experiences.

This story presents an occasion for laughter on two different levels. First is the laughter from Renee's date, potentially indicating a shift in thinking about disability, and laughing at themselves for expecting disability to be connected to a dramatic accident. Second is the laughter of identification on the part of disabled people, who understand misconceptions about disability. These individuals may be familiar with the need to do some sort of "acid test" with prospective dates and friends to gauge their sentiments regarding disability, and their willingness to change those thoughts. This kind of laughter may also indicate a shift in the thinking of people with disabilities, as they remember they are not alone in experiencing these daily frustrations.

A final story about using humor as a social corrective is told by Drew, who explains a time when he and a friend who is another wheelchair user were at a concert, and had to go up one floor to find their seats. Outside the elevator several middle-aged TABs were waiting to get on, and Drew's friend whispered in his ear, "I hate it when masses of abled-bodied people try use the elevator." Drew said aloud, "You hate when able bodied people try to use the elevator, James?" A few people left the line to use the stairs, but the remainder boarded the elevator with Drew and his friend, shoving them to the far side. Everyone else seemed to be going to the fourth or fifth floor while Drew and his friend had to go to the third, so he said, "It's going to be really awkward when we have to get off at the third floor and all of you have to get off the elevator." The two friends were able to exit the elevator on the correct floor, but Drew says the situation was uncomfortable. In this story TAB individuals become the butt of the joke because they must be shamed into using the stairs, yet some are still determined to use the elevator. At the same time, Drew erroneously assumes that by simply looking at someone's body, it is easy to discern whether or not they are able to use stairs.

Drew explains that at the time of our interview, "That was a recent story…[but] I would repeat that story…people just use the elevator because they don't feel like carrying their luggage up, but it can grind your gears…that would be a story for other disabled people, if people ask what annoys you." While Drew suggests he would restrict this story to audiences of disabled people who "get it," it isn't difficult to imagine this story also being told to TAB audiences and eliciting an uneasy laughter as individuals recall occasions when they didn't really need the elevator. Drew positions himself as having the agency to assert himself in this situation, yet in this world Drew and his friend are not allowed to fit, since TABs are shoving them to the margins and not giving proper consideration to their needs. Drew points to the irony that while facilities may allow disabled individuals access to public venues, often they cannot easily access to those facilities because of TABs who usurp them.

Bridging the Humor Gap?

As my research suggests, one of the primary difficulties in telling stories that incorporate humor and disability is that those comic moments can be interpreted in numerous ways depending on the teller and audience. Even within disability communities, individuals differ widely in their definitions of acceptable humor versus humor that crosses a line. This variance in attitudes toward crip humor was clear both in the remarks made by disability studies scholars on the subject, and in the range of stories I gathered from the individuals I interviewed. Humor is always a personal matter, and perhaps crip humor is even more so.

This idea was highlighted in the careful control that joke-tellers maintained over their audiences, as they determined which kinds of jokes fit their purposes for which listeners. This intentionality does affect reception, since joking is a political and rhetorical tactic, and the audience must be primed for its reception. While tellers often gauged their audiences in part on expected sympathies, there was often some educational facet to the joke-telling as well, since the teller wanted to explain some aspect of living with disability. While some jokes were deemed fit for a more general audience, tellers were more cautious around superiors or people who might be very sensitive or empathetic, in which case the fact of disability might overwhelm their potential laughter. These joke tellers realize that some listeners may not be able to laugh at the idea of having no feet to step on, failing to make a basket because you can't see the net, or not being able to hear someone clearly. If audience members focus more on the loss connoted by disability, and not the adaptation or how bodies are inherently malleable, any attempt at creating a shift in listeners' opinions may be lost.

In their analysis of humor by disabled comedians, Reid, Stoughton, and Smith pose an important question about the effects of crip humor on the TAB community, stating, "For disabled audiences, disability comedy may play a role in creating an in-group that challenges majority culture. On the other hand, in a mainstream setting, such humor could build tension and discomfort. The question remains whether these powerful and unsettling effects are momentary" (641). A similar question can be asked about the potential for individual disabled people to create social change and a re-thinking of disability, by engaging with TABs and using humor to address disability in a creative manner and help deconstruct social stigmas.

These stories suggest one way of rethinking disability can be recontextualizing it as a social construction, and highlighting aspects of culture and the built environment that pose barriers and impediments to certain kinds of bodies. These barriers can include anything from forms of greeting that involve visual cues and physical touching, to a lack of clearly labeled accessible entrances to buildings, to the failure of businesses to provide text in large print or Braille. It is this lack of accessibility that creates much of the public fear of disability, since as Kleege notes, people are most afraid of losing their independence and autonomy. Our culture is so greatly invested in individualistic I-can-do-it-myself attitudes, that the thought of interdependence and needing to rely on others becomes terrifying. These stories serve an important function in working against the idea that people with disabilities are wholly dependent, but also demonstrating how interdependence is a far from shameful fact of life (such as when your friends help pick up the pieces of your cane, your mom drives you to school to get your legs, and a kind lady punches you in the face at your request).

Related to this casual attitude toward disability, possibly the most difficult aspect to convey in a paper such as this is how many of these stories were told with such obvious glee. It was difficult not to laugh with the teller, and enjoy the transgressive nature of the joke. At the same time, many of those I interviewed mentioned that they do not tell certain jokes to newly disabled people, or to disabled people they have just met. Until they can gauge these individuals' feelings about their impairment, embodied status, and interdependence with others, it is easier to refrain from jokes that might come off as crude.

Clearly these joking practices are not ones that can be adopted by all people with disabilities, or seen as humorous by some TABs. Based on the stories told by those I interviewed, this endeavor can meet with success on some occasions, yet some people may never consider disability a joking matter. For them, the matter of bodily integrity may be too serious to ever be interpreted as comic. At the same time, blindness, deafness, being an amputee or person with autism or using a wheelchair for mobility are all alternate and viable ways of living and being in the world. To further acceptance of various forms of embodiment, these disabilities can be grist for the mill. The comic. The absurd. Crip humor. Moments when the possibly tragic turns laughable, because ultimately the joke is on us, our bodies are more adaptable than we may first perceive, and the world is indeed filled with people who have just not found their disability yet. Eventually we will all share in-group jokes of one form or another.

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