Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer/Fall 2003, Volume 23, No. 3/4
Copyright 2003 by the Society
for Disability Studies

DSQ Symposium, Disability & Humor

By Beth Haller
Department of Mass Communication & Communication Studies
Towson University
Towson, MD 21252

Those who live outside the world of disability culture probably believe that the words disability and humor don't belong in the same sentence. To those folks, disability is associated with tragedy and sadness, or maybe some inspiration because a person copes with a disability. Disability certainly isn't appropriate to the world of comedy or humor, they think. Laughter involving a person with a disability would be impolite.

Thankfully, that thinking is falling by the wayside as the humorous side of disability culture burrows its way into mass culture. Disability humor is out of the closet, so to speak, and can be found in primetime TV, comedy clubs, children's cartoons, theater, films, Websites, advertising, and radio—even on the BBC. Performers, writers, and artists with disabilities are letting audiences see the laughs within the disability experience. From wheelchair-user Daryl "Chill" Mitchell's prominent role on the NBC dramedy "Ed" to deaf comedian Kathy Buckley's one-woman off-Broadway show to John Callahan's politically incorrect cartoons, disability humor is becoming part of Western culture.

The significance of this form of disability humor is that people with disabilities create it, but it also is accessible to general audiences. The venerable British Broadcasting Corporation joined the fray in June 2002 with the launch of "Ouch! The twisted telethon of truth." Set up to reflect the real lives of disabled people in the UK, Ouch! is written by a team of disabled web journalists. Its focus is irreverent and humorous because as the editor Damon Rose says, "Disabled people are uniquely positioned to see some of the weirder sides of human nature and often have the darkest of dark humours and Ouch! will reflect this" (BBC, 2002). Ouch! even features a regular cartoon called The Vegetables, which parodies disabled life, and a weblog called Crippled Monkey, where gossip, news tidbits, and critiques of media treatment of disability are presented.

However, not all disability humor that has begun to permeate the culture brings applause. Some cringed in 2000 when the scatological, anti-PC Comedy Central show, "South Park," introduced Timmy, a mentally retarded wheelchair user. But, because the show skewers everyone (the only black child in South Park is named Token), many in the disability community took pride in being part of the parody landscape. "South Park" even added a second disabled character, "Jimmy," who uses crutches and does a comedy routine. "He likes to be called ‘Handi-Capable.' He ends up outshining our beloved Timmy with his stand-up comic routine," the show reports.

The filmmaking Farrelly brothers have featured disabled characters in almost all of their comedies and have found both bitter criticism and high praise of their efforts. Visually impaired writer Kathi Wolfe explained that two boys knocked away her white cane and called her "dumb" after seeing a similar incident depicted in the Farrelly brothers' 1994 movie, "Dumb and Dumber" (1995). On the other hand, the Farrelly brothers' 2002 comedy, "Shallow Hal," focused on a theme of acceptance no matter what someone looks like and gave a prominent role to an actor with spina bifida, who played a character with money and sexual prowess. A number of people with disabilities enjoy the Farrelly brothers sometimes offensive take on disability. The brothers' friend, Danny Murphy, who is a wheelchair user, took a bit part in "There's Something about Mary" because he "was tired of seeing sentimental depictions of the disabled onscreen" (Russo, 2001, p. L6).

Therein lies the complexity of the topic of disability and humor: It flies in the face of centuries of sentimentality and tragic portrayals. That is why it deserves scholarly attention. Most of the aforementioned disability humor examples have yet to be analyzed and discussed by disability studies scholars, but they should be. Disability humor appears to be a way in which the disability community is gradually sliding its issues into the mainstream culture. The general public may not understand the intricacies of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but they understand it is discrimination when Daryl Mitchell's character on "Ed" is not allowed to participate in a dance competition because he uses a wheelchair. Comedy can communicate volumes about serious disability issues. The international disability organization Rehabilitation International's training materials say, "Humour is a universal bridge over the awkwardness many people feel when approaching a new or unfamiliar situation. It can often quickly convey a message that, given in a more lengthy and serious way, would be didactic and uninteresting. Messages received through humour are also remembered longer" (1994, p.9).

The Contributions

The essays and articles in this issue illustrate the complexity of disability humor. By analyzing John Callahan's kids cartoon, "Pelswick," the article by Sue Ralph and me tries to delineate the various phases through which disability humor has moved. The Nickelodeon show features a 13-year-old wheelchair user named Pelswick Eggert. We contend that the show's humor represents a new phase of disability humor because it includes all the characters and is not just focused on Pelswick or his disability. Most of the characters have no disability and much of the laughter is directed at them. Pelswick's humor, love of life, and full involvement in all activities depicts him as a "normal kid." He is a fully participating member of his community and family. "Pelwick" illustrates disability humor at its best &#151; everyone can laugh at our shared human experiences, and having a disability is depicted as just another unique feature about human beings.

However, not all current disability humor can be seen as a positive movement forward. Stephen Rosenbaum discusses a controversy regarding humor directed at a person with a disability in San Francisco. It is a situation in which a person with a developmental disability, "Hank," works with "shock jocks" as the object of humiliation on a radio morning show, which trades in gross-out humor and sophomoric pranks. The complexity arises because as offensive and degrading as much of the banter directed at Hank is, he is still an independent adult who is allowed to make his own decisions. However, even those who support choice and independence for people with developmental disabilities wonder if Hank understands the level of his exploitation. As Rosenbaum explains, the forces of protection are pitted against the forces of advocacy.

Beth Meszaros discusses the use of characters with disabilities in black comedy, especially the plays of Beth Henley and Martin McDonagh. McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan recounts the story of "Cripple Billy," an orphaned, teenaged boy disabled by "a lame leg and withered arm." But Billy has an adventurous spirit and definitely defies any description as a "sainted" disabled person. Meszaros says Henley's plays are rife with disabled characters and some of her characters tell stories of society's "enfreakment" of people with disabilities. She says the stories of people with disabilities in these black comedies are allowing audiences to realize that they live in a world of temporarily able-bodied human beings.

Carmen Moran considers the relevance of humor as a coping strategy for people with disabilities. But she argues for an inclusive view of humor, meaning that there should not be an assumption that people with disabilities respond to humor any differently than a person without a disability. However, she says people with disabilities who are coping with societal barriers or condescending people may use humor in specific ways to deal with those experiences.


British Broadcasting Corp. (2001, July 6). BBC launches disability site. [BBC press release]. http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2002/06_june/07/ouch.shtml

Kolucki, B. & Duncan, B. (1994). Working together with the media: A Practical Guide for People with Disabilities. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.


Russo, T. (2001, July 15). Not saints. Not victims. Not martyrs. Just folks. Films and TV are trying to take a more clear-eyed look at the disabled. Boston Globe, p. L6.

South Park Studios. (2003). The Show: The Characters: Jimmy. http://www.southparkstudios.com/show/char.html?min=3.

Wolfe, K. (1995, March). Crip flicks. Mainstream, pp. 29-32.

Copyright (c) 2003 Beth Haller

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)