|Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies
"It Was a Joke For Him and a Life For Me:"
A Discourse on Disability Related Humor
among Families of Children with Disabilities
Alicja Rieger, Ph.D.
This study examines closely in what ways six families of children with disabilities considered themselves insiders and in what ways and context they perceived themselves as outsiders with regards to disability humor. In-depth interviews, participant observation, and selective cartoon analysis were used to collect data. The data were analyzed qualitatively with the help of the constant comparative method. In terms of the findings, different phases through which disability humor passes (Haller & Ralph, 2003) were identified among families from this study. If the disability was the one that they as a family encountered in their familial circles, they were able to move past protest humor toward a humor of equality. That is, they achieved regular lives via their displays of familial humor interactions and thus "demystified the disability experience" (Haller & Ralph, 2003, p. 5) for themselves and other families, as the audience. Within this framework, children with disabilities had not only the right to participate in familial discourse on humor but also an equal status in humor appreciation and production. However, if the disability humor was about a disability other than the one they were personally acquainted, they largely perceived such humor with "sympathetic and lamentable attitudes" (Baum, 1998, p. 3), indicating that they still remained steadfast in their "ableist" conceptions of disability and, thus maintained a "politically correct" orientation toward other disabilities and humor.
Keywords: humor and disability, families of a child with a disability, familial humor interactions, and qualitative research
The purpose of this study was to learn more systematically about the perspectives of families of children with disabilities on humor in their daily lives. The study was conducted as a part of the larger qualitative research and was guided by the following research questions:
(1) How do families understand the concept of humor itself?
This paper is one of the series of papers prepared by the author to report the results from this larger qualitative study. Its scope refers only to findings related to the participants' responses to the second research question: What connections do families make between humor and disability? Readers interested in the analysis of participants' responses to other research questions guiding this larger qualitative study are referred to the paper prepared by the author (2004) for the Journal of the Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, in which definitions of humor, the individual and functional aspects of humor, as perceived by the families participating in this study are discussed.
Literature on Humor and Family
Most of the studies that focused on humor among families living with a member with a disability and/or illness have examined the relationship between humor and family coping mechanisms. Just to give two examples of this group of studies, Brooks, Guthrie, and Gaylord (1999) analyzed closely the differing humor patterns when families dealt with multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. According to the researchers:
Rao (1996) found out that a sense of humor, particularly when expressed as joking or teasing, was an effective coping mechanism for Bengali families of children with disabilities. He wrote:
Family Self-Help Literature and Humor
Several informal self-help books/guides were written to assist families and individuals with disabilities in mapping and developing their own sense of humor and coping mechanisms. Pearlman and Scott (1981), for instance, teach how to develop humorous attitudes and open feelings as one of the healthy steps in coping with disability within a family in their book, Raising the Handicapped Child. According to the authors:
Literature on Disability Humor Discourse
As much as humor is recognized as a positive coping mechanism in families of children with disabilities (Burbach, & Babbitt, 1993; Chapman 1976; Foot, Chapman & Smith, 1980; Hertzler, 1970; Rutter, 2000), disability humor itself is an issue that still arouses deep passions and contradictory messages (Albrecht, 1999). On the one hand, it is considered by many societies inappropriate and politically incorrect to laugh at individuals with disabilities and as a result, important to maintain serious attitudes around disability issues. Within this context Haller and Ralph (2003) argued:
On the other hand, people with disabilities have been the target of offensive and degrading humor for centuries. A twisted body meant a twisted mind and a twisted sense of humor (Anderson, 1988; Bogdan, 1988). Baum (1998) wrote in this context:
The interest in offensive humor has not been abandoned in modern times Rosenbaum (2003), for instance, analyzed the 94.9 "Doghouse" morning show aired at the local radio station in San Francisco as an example of a modern version of a freak show, which, he called "FM Freak Show" (p. 18). In the show, one of the comedians is an individual with a developmental disability, "Hank" who is a constant subject of humiliation and offensive pranks from the "shock jocks," that is deejays and on-the-air-callers. As reported by the researcher, despite the fact that Hank "suits the purposes of his creators and alleged buddies much more as a puppet or pet, catering to their puerile whims and guffawing on cue (p. 19), the show was awarded a three star "crass quotient" a few years ago in the review of radio shows by San Francisco morning newspaper.
Disability Culture Humor
Individuals with disabilities themselves and their advocates contribute to the discourse on what constitutes offensive and non-offensive humor in context of a disability. Perhaps the most famous humorist who tries to deal with disability and society's discourse on offensive versus non-offensive humor is John Callahan (1989), a nationally recognized syndicated cartoonist. According to Callahan (1989), ideologies, leaders, accepted ways of behaving and, most of all, disability can be laughed at. Thus, in his cartoon books such as Don't Worry He Won't Get Far On Foot (1989), he makes fun of the blind, the deaf, "the crippled," people without arms, and his own severe spine injury.
Some disability organizations and the disability press also speak to the matter of disability in society with the help of humor. "Not Dead Yet" (NDY), and Mouth are only two examples of advocacy bodies and the press that provide humor- based commentaries on legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia for people with disabilities, charities and telethons (Byzek, 1996). The importance of this type of disability humor is in the acknowledgement of the fact that not only the able-bodied, but also disabled people and their advocates can laugh. And what is more important, they can also be the initiators of the protest humor that provides a critique and represents their (insider) resistance towards the dominant culture's (outsider) ideas about disability (Shultz & Germeroth, 1998; Moran, 2003).
This study extends the analysis of this complex matter of disability humor, but from the point of view of families having children with disabilities.
The families represented different ethnic backgrounds. Four families reported Caucasian/White for race. One family reported Latino-American. It was Brazilian in its origin. One family was African-American with foster care and adopted children. And one family adopted a child of Asian origin (a Vietnamese girl).
Finally, the families' structures varied in this study ranging from traditional joint family, to single parent family, and to foster care household. Their incomes ranged from $10,000 to $70,000 annually.
Data Collection and Analysis
The data were collected through in-depth interviewing and observations. An open-ended interview protocol was used in order to be consistent across interviews. The interview protocol was based on the literature review, the purposes of this study, and on the direct consultation with my research advisor and mentor. However, the interview protocol was used only to facilitate the interviews rather than to direct the interview process (Creswell, 1994; Krueger, 1994; Park, Turnbull, & Park, 2001). Participants were encouraged to talk about their experiences with humor more freely during subsequent follow up interviews, when the purpose was to clarify and elaborate on the information previously shared.
The second method of data collection involved observation. Most of the observations took place at the families' homes. However, whenever possible I accompanied children and parents on shopping trips, went out for lunch with them, attended family trips to amusement parks, museums, the symphony, joined them for swimming, dance calling, feeding their neighbors' animals during their owners' absence, and so on. In total, 70 visits were made to the families within a period of more than 12 months.
In addition, selective cartoons were used as a supplementary source of the data collection. Those included cartoons from daily newspapers and the disability rights publication, Mouth, which carries cartons by Scott Chambers. The selective cartoons from daily newspapers were brought to my attention by family members themselves, who during the interviewing process would spontaneously pull out whatever daily newspaper they had in front of them and point to randomly selected cartoons in order to illustrate some of their perspectives on humor. Following the families' approach, I used some selective cartoons from the Mouth disability rights publication in order to connect to some of the points the family members made during selective interview sessions. See Appendix. Since the cartoons came into the picture spontaneously and at various stages of the interviewing process, I was unable to obtain data in this respect from all the family members interviewed. As a result, the inclusion of the cartoons was used only in order to further triangulate my data, rather than as one of the major techniques of the data collection.
Finally, I did not make an attempt to define the concept of humor itself prior to and within the course of the interviews, because I did not want to enter my field of study with a preconceived notion of humor. Instead, following the qualitative nature of this study, I made attempts to listen to the families themselves and to describe their emerging understanding of humor in their own lives.
Both the audio-taped interviews and notes taken during observations were transformed into sets of field-notes, which were analyzed using a constant comparative method of qualitative analysis. That is, "the emerging coded categories were compared constantly with each other to get a general framework and to reduce the emerging data to the major themes and the higher-level concepts" (Park, Turnbull, & Park, 2001, p. 160). The final version of codes was refined to two major themes: "the variety of the types of offensive humor" and "the variety of the criteria for distinguishing offensive from non-offensive humor" with 20 sub-themes.
Familial Discourse on Disability Humor
Also, the insider humor directed at improving the self-esteem of those with disabilities, and humor that focused on building morale for those who were enduring a severe hardship by joking about their predicament was understood by the families as a positive coping mechanism and a means of turning tragedy into comedy. Frances, an African American foster care mother of children with multiple disabilities, spoke to the matter, "If they make fun of themselves. That's OK. They use humor to cope with their disability. But otherwise you shouldn't do that."
Within their disability discourse, the families further permitted those with disabilities to engage in a reversal humor in order to fight stereotypical perceptions of disability held by those without disabilities and thus to move the social reform forward. Perhaps, Michael and Rita, the parents of a son with autism, clarified the purpose of such humor when they said respectively:
Within this philosophical framework, it was not surprising to learn that families in this study perceived their own children with disabilities as having a sense of humor and a right to display it. To illustrate, Jack, a child with autism, is considered by his family as not only somebody who creates humor himself but also someone who shares it with his mother, Susan who explained:
Furthermore, families in this study approved their own children's rights to create and display humor regardless of whether non-disabled family members got it or not. Joan, a mother of another child with autism, spoke to that matter:
And children with disabilities regarded themselves as humorous and capitalized on their disposition to create humor. Elizabeth, a teenager with a profound hearing loss, said to that point, "I have thought myself to have a sense of humor; I like to fool around and make jokes." Similarly, Matthew, a child with autism, admitted that his love for laughter is his personality trait. "I love to laugh and to have fun," and as if to affirm his status as a person with a sense of humor, he shared with me the following joke that he pulled out from the Internet and found to be funny:
Interestingly, in their endorsement of disability humor among those with disabilities and their own children as insiders, family members living with a disability on daily basis did not claim the status of "insiders," if the disability was different than the one displayed in their own family circles. That is, they reacted negatively to humor depicting the type of disability other than the one that they experienced themselves in their own family circles. To illustrate, Joan, a mother of a son with autism condemned humor that undermines respect for individuals with mental illnesses, and those who are medicated. She said, "It is not politically correct to laugh at spacey people on Prozac. Laughing at them is an injustice in an obvious or disguised manner."
John, a father of a son with autism, himself could not play tricks on children with speech and communication disorders. One of his chants required that children play with their tongue, and produce sounds nearly identical to those produced by children with speech impairments. The awareness, or memory of the similarity of the two incidents made John uncomfortable, and unwilling to use this version of the chant with children with speech and communication difficulties. He explains the case:
Ron, a father with mild hearing loss, who has a teenage daughter with profound hearing loss, could not find anything funny in humor around physical disabilities. He felt that jokes about individuals with physical disabilities were in poor taste, and made him feel uncomfortable, if not personally insulted. Once he said:
When families in this study laughed as insiders, they were laughing around a disability they were personally acquainted, and most of the time children with disabilities were the source of such familial humor interactions. For instance, John, the father of a son with autism, reported that his son, Adam, had instilled what he called "school foster mentality." That is, when he is asked a question he feels that he has an obligation to give you as complete an answer as he can. According to John, this inability to discriminate, linked with his literal language, might produce a lot of family laughter:
Children with disabilities, as insiders, were sources of family humor because they, as any child of their age shared their "amusing observations" without even intending to be funny. Linda, the mother of a daughter with a brain injury, noted, "They will say things out of their mouths, you know and that is exactly why they are so funny." She gave the following story that speaks to this:
Note that when families, as insiders, talked about their children with disabilities as the main source of family humor, they didn't focus solely on disability humor. Michael, the father of a son with autism, illustrated this point most clearly when he said, "I guess I don't really look at him on a day-to-day basis as having any disabilities. I don't really think about that. And I basically think that he's a normal kid and he's as weird as the rest of us in his own way."
However, when non-disabled family members did laugh as the insiders, they did it in a very special way. Joan, a mother of a son with autism, explained this type of laughter most clearly:
Within this context, the non-disabled family members followed their own private and inner rules for humorous interactions. These rules prescribed what kind of disability humor was permitted within a given family context. John, a father of a son with autism, for instance, constantly asked himself these questions to assess the effects of humor on his family audience: "Could someone be offended by this? Is it offensive? How would this be understood or perceived?" If the answer to these questions was, yes, he restrained himself from this type of humor.
Frances, an African-American foster care mother of children with multiple disabilities, did not laugh at anything that her children would not laugh at first. She spoke to the point:
Similarly, Linda, a mother of twins with multiple disabilities, looked around before she let her laughter be heard. She explained:
In rare cases, the non-disabled family members might take direct action, and tell the offender to back off. Arthur, a sibling of a brother and a sister with traumatic brain injury and mental retardation, for instance, was ready to stand up, and protect his siblings with disabilities when the situation called for it. He said, "People have made fun of them before, which I will say something like, 'Leave them alone,' or I won't let them make fun of them, make jokes. I will go around and tell them to stop."
The rationale of such insider disability humor limitations imposed on the non-disabled family members went along with the family's specific understanding of their obligations towards individuals with disabilities as disability humor partners. The disabled humor initiators or recipients were to be included rather than excluded from the family humor. Perhaps the statement of Kathleen, a mother of a teenage daughter with profound hearing loss, said it all, "Either they are part of the humor, or there is no point in doing it."
Finally, the families in this study found the mass media humor to be stereotyping of people with disabilities and thus offensive to their inner familial tastes. Allen, a father of a child with autism, noted, "The exploitation of disability metaphor in cartoons stinks." "A lot of the mass media humor is based on stereotypes, which bugs me," said John, another father of a son with autism. He and his wife, Rita, gave an example to illustrate their point of view. Once they were at a concert where there was a narrator who made, as they described them, "very silly, funny commentaries to music." He would, for instance, sing the songs in a funny way, and then tell the jokes about different musicians and various musical pieces. To make it even funnier, there was also a cymbal player who kept coming in, on purpose, at the wrong place. According to John and Rita, it was really very funny because "the joke was very musical, and there was a lot of that all through this performance. It was wonderful." But at one point of the performance, "sort of at the culmination," as John noted, the cymbal player came in absolutely at the wrongest time he could come in. The narrator commented, "Well, hire the handicapped." John said, "It kind of killed the whole thing. You know?"
Similarly, Susan, a mother of a son with autism, considered the public humor as not only offensive to individuals with disabilities but also as mean-spirited in its very nature to her own family. She brought to my attention a cartoon displayed in the previous night's local paper to make her point. The cartoon showed Roy Rogers, a cowboy celebrity of the 1950s, as a stuffed figure next to his horse, Trigger, also a stuffed animal in a museum. The caption read, "Dale, I know Roy had Trigger stuffed after he died, but isn't this going a bit too far?" Susan was very upset about the incident and suggested that the cartoonist had no right to make jokes at the expense of such a "cultural icon" as Roy Rogers. According to Susan, the cartoonist's anti-image of her hero tended to be unsympathetic to the whole idea of somebody working hard and advocating for children with disabilities by taking them into his household. According to her, both the cartoonist and the newspaper had gotten it wrong. In her own words:
The results from this study demonstrate that families shared different levels of cross-disability awareness when engaging in humor. I used Haller and Ralph's (2003) phases through which disability humor passes to discuss these different levels of cross-disability awareness. Haller and Ralph (2003) identified four stages in disability humor development:
Applied to this study, the families were able to move past protest humor toward a humor of equality (Phase three and four of the stages of the humor development), if the disability was the one they encountered in their familial circles. That is, they achieved regular lives via their displays of familial humorous interactions and "demystified the disability experience" (Haller and Ralph, 2003, p. 5) for themselves and other family members, where children with disabilities not only had the right to participate in the humor discourse but also an equal status in humor appreciation and production. More precisely, if the humor were around a disability experienced in their own family circles, they considered themselves insiders. They felt comfortable to participate in their own children's involuntary humor, which was defined by them as the major source of familial humorous interactions. The important thing was however, the fact that the disability itself was not necessarily the main reason for familial humor.
Furthermore, families in this study gave the authorization for insiders to engage in humor. If we were to use Haller and Ralph's (2003) language, they gave themselves "control of the humor message," which represents phase three of disability humor development (p. 13). More specifically, they saw its potential benefits to this inner group's activist agenda. That is, humor that called attention to social wrongs, stereotypes, and prejudice towards those "less abled" was understood as this in-group's right to negotiate their place in society, and thus to promote the need for change. As a result, findings from this study are also consistent with Burbach and Babbitt's (1993) research related to individuals in wheelchairs. According to these researchers, it was regarded as highly appropriate within disability in-group communities to use humor for social reform purposes. "Like all minority groups, students in wheelchairs use humor to call attention to perceived social wrongs and to promote their pet causes" (Burbach and Babbitt, 1993, p. 8).
If the disability humor was around disabilities other than the one they as non-disabled family members experienced in their own lives, they were not comfortable with making a connection between humor and disability. More specifically, they remained steadfast in their "ableist" conceptions of disability (phase two of the stages of the humor development). That is, while they were moving forward the disability humor with which they were personally acquainted, they clung to their "status of able-bodiness," and remained politically correct in their attitudes regarding mainstream humor toward other disabilities. That is, they at large continued to perceived such disability humor with "sympathetic and lamentable attitudes" and as a result "they resist[ed] or oppose[d] attempts to juxtapose humor and disability" concepts together (Baum, 1998, p. 3). This is directly evident in their having a set of inner and private criteria that formed the basis for their assessment regarding whether some humorous material was offensive or not. This symbolically marked the difference between their familial sense of disability humor (the laughter of welcome) and that of the mainstream humor (the laughter of rejection). "It was a joke for him and a life for me," argued Ron, who had a mild hearing loss himself, as well as a daughter with a profound hearing loss.
Limitations of the Study
While this study presents an insider view of humor disability in families with children who have disabilities, it also however, has inherent limitations. First, the selection of families might place some boundaries on the study. Most of the families in this study came from the referrals from other professionals. One of the problems with referrals is that when professionals are asked to recommend parents who might be interested in participating in the study, they may interpret that to mean parents with whom they have had positive experiences or parents who are more articulate. I attempted to circumvent this by giving the families some time to think seriously about the study before they made a commitment and by assuring them that their lack of participation in the study would not have any effect on their relationships with the professionals who recommended them in the first place. However, I cannot ignore the fact that the professionals giving the initial referrals might have excluded families who were less articulate or less open.
Second, the families who chose to participate in this study were people who had reached a level of comfort with having a member with a disability and had made efforts to move beyond it. These factors might have given the families in this study a stronger predisposition to engage themselves in humorous interactions in the first place and to engage in this kind of research than would be the case elsewhere.
Third, except for one family who had a teenage daughter with a profound hearing impairment, none of the families had children with "severe" disabilities. So this makes it difficult to know if the "severity" of the disability might have made any difference in the perceptions on offensive versus non-offensive humor.
Finally, most family members in this study were educated people with varied interests and financially secure lives. Low-status and economically vulnerable families might have had contrasting interests, differing patterns of kin, and less stable resource bases. Thus, they might have perspectives on the matter of offensive humor varying from the families in this study.
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I would like to thank Scott Chambers for permission to use the following cartoon "Disabled Clock" from Chambers, S. (1996). Mouth Off. Mouth: The Voice of Disability Rights, 7(4), pp. 54-55.
Description of Cartoon 1 in Appendix
The cartoon is called "Disabled Clock" and depicts a circle with a dot in the middle, indicating a clock with no arms.
Courtesy of Scott Chambers
Used with permission. Please seek permission to use Scott Chambers' cartoons at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Some of the methodology sections presented here have been previously included in the following article: Rieger, A. (2004). Humor and other types of fun: Explorations of the functions of humor among families of children with disabilities. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 29(3), 194-209.
Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) is the journal of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). It is a multidisciplinary and international journal of interest to social scientists, scholars in the humanities and arts, disability rights advocates, and others concerned with the issues of people with disabilities. It represents the full range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that the field of disability studies embraces. DSQ is committed to developing theoretical and practical knowledge about disability and to promoting the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society. (ISSN: 1041-5718; eISSN: 2159-8371)