Things Disability Activists Shouldn’t Do

“Please don’t!” in bold black letters, next to a yellow smiley face, on a white background

I hope this list of “don’ts” isn’t just a list of my personal pet peeves. I tried to focus on bad and harmful habits that are at least somewhat common among disability activists, especially new ones. I’ve also tried to stick to ideas and rhetorical practices that are specific to the disability community … not just annoying personal qualities anyone might have. And while I personally disapprove of them, I hope people will read this list as helpful, not scolding. I have done most of these things at some point in my life as a disabled person. I probably still do some of them sometimes now. None of us is perfect. But at least we should have some idea of where perfection might be found, and where it decidedly can’t.

So, if you’re going to do disability activism, here are some things to avoid:

Don’t complain about “other minorities” having more power, recognition, support, etc. than disabled people.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a disability activist complain about the disability community’s lack of recognition and power by implying that other “minorities” are somehow better off than “we” are. First of all, it’s not true. Second, our movements and communities overlap. There are disabled people who are also people of color, LGBTQ+, immigrants, etc. So our “groups” aren’t even totally separate. Finally, justice isn’t a limited commodity to fight over, and resenting other peoples’ perceived status or advantages is corrosive, offensive, and pointless.

Don’t compete for power, recognition, and support with people who have disabilities that are different than yours.

This is another variation on the same habit of zero-sum competition. “Severely” disabled people think more “mildly” disabled people hog all of their their resources, and vice versa. Every disease and condition wants to be considered the top priority, and simultaneously viewed as the most disadvantaged. Different disabilities do include different experiences, hierarchies do unfortunately exist between disabilities, and total unanimity among disabled people is neither possible nor even desirable. But deliberate competition and resentment between disability groups for shares of a supposedly limited pie is terribly destructive, and helps exactly nobody.

Don’t try to improve perceptions of your disability by saying that it’s better than having some other kind of disability,

“It’s my legs that don’t work. There’s nothing wrong with my mind!” may be the ugliest and yet most common line of argument disabled people use to sidestep stigma and bolster their social status … as if people who DO have “something wrong with their mind somehow deserve prejudice and condescension. Disability activists should fight ableism, not try to doge it or deflect it onto others.

Don’t accommodate people with some kinds of disabilities and then make accommodating others a lower priority.

This should be obvious. If you believe non-disabled people should make things accessible to your disability, then you should do all you can to make everything you do accessible to people with any disability. And yet, disability organizations regularly treat certain accommodations as extras or ad-hoc “if requested.” This is an especially common problem for people with intellectual disabilities, as well as for blind and deaf people.

Don’t attempt to craft a more “positive” image of disability by centering people perceived to be more conventionally attractive or appealing.

This practice of handing leadership and the proverbial microphone to the kinds of disabled people thought to be most appealing and relatable … white, young, physically disabled, (not mentally or intellectually), and verbally articulate … is at least somewhat understandable from a conventional P.R. perspective. But it is also deceptive, exclusionary, and wasteful. It’s a rarely questioned or even acknowledged practice that the disability community, in particular, needs to think about a lot more than it does.

Don’t try to police who should and shouldn’t qualify as “disabled.”

People with chronic illness, mental illness, and learning disabilities are often regarded as marginal or provisional “members” of the disability community … and not just by non-disabled people. If a person has a condition of any kind that they have to think about and adapt to every day, and if they are affected by ableism, (even misplaced ableism), then they should be considered disabled, with no caveats or asterisks. Disability is more than wheelchairs.

Don’t judge or disparage individual disabled people for choices they make for themselves in their own lives.

This is tricky. It’s fine to criticize fellow disabled activists for activism tactics and disability ideas you disagree with. But it’s a good, unifying rule of thumb to hold back any disapproval you may feel for any disabled person’s individual life choices. For example, a disabled person living with their parents or in a nursing home, choosing not to learn how to drive or pursue employment, the words they choose to describe their own disabilities, and whether and how they may strive for medical cures and therapies, should be off limits for individual judgment. As disabled people, we should all be fully aware of the many complex forces, circumstances, and reasons each of us has for doing the things we do in our own personal lives … and the utter folly of judging how any one disabled person handles their life.

Don’t dismiss other disabled people’s claims of ableism simply because you happen to think their specific claim might not be valid.

Some disabled people experience far more ableism than others. Those of us who are disabled but also benefit from generally good social status and support sometimes find it hard to believe just how horrifically some disabled people are treated. Skepticism is good! But some of us take a little too much pride in grilling other disabled people about their own stories. You don’t have to believe everything another disabled person says, but there’s essentially no value in loudly disbelieving them in a public way. And there is really no down side to giving fellow disabled people the benefit of the doubt. Also, really, really bad stuff does happen to disabled people, even if nothing so terrible has ever happened to you.

Don’t try to claim that you can’t possibly be ableist, or do or say an ableist thing, because you yourself are disabled.

Ableism is woven into the fabric of society. Disabled people are members of society. So it’s not only possible for disabled people to harbor some ableism, it’s unsurprisingly common. And having a disability doesn’t make anyone immune to being ableist. You, too might be ableist from time to time. It’s not good, but it’s not the end of the world either. Just realize it, deal with it, and try to do better.

What other “don’ts” would you suggest for disability activists?

What Defines Members Of The “Disability Community?”

Five different-colored stick figures representing five types of disabilities

The do we mean when we talk about the “disability community?”

Most obviously, we are talking about disabled people. Here is my own definition of what counts as “disabled”

“If you have a physical or mental condition that you have to think about and plan around every day, then you are disabled.”

But, if I have absorbed one thing over the last several years of disability blogging and immersion in online disability culture and activism, it’s that being one of the disabled population isn’t the same thing as being a part of a disabled community.

Sometimes, when people refer to the “disability community,” they do actually mean the total population of all disabled people, however they define disability. But often I think what we are really talking about is people with disabilities who have a certain approach and orientation to disability as an experience , and towards other disabled people. When we say, “The disability community is concerned about ___,” what we usually mean is that a group of disabled people with some degree of unity and common viewpoint have an opinion about something … not that all disabled people think a certain way.

Now, as soon as you start talking about who is and isn’t part of a “community,” you sound like you are making judgments and encouraging elitism. Maybe that’s unavoidable. All I can say is that I try to keep that to a minimum. Being part of the disability community isn’t necessarily a good thing, and not being involved in it isn’t necessarily bad or inferior. It’s just a different way of being with your disability.

So, what makes a person part of the “disability community?”

First of all, there are a few criteria that are often implied, but I want to reject.

• You don’t have to know or “follow” certain famous disability activists, celebrities, or online “influencers.”

• You don’t have to be a liberal, a Democrat, or a progressive.

• You don’t have to adhere to a strict list of approved positions on key disability issues.

• You don’t have to use only certain approved words and phrases to talk about disability.

Some people may treat these as requirements, but I don’t think they should be. But I do think it’s useful to note some of the common characteristics of disabled people who are in the disability community … in addition to actually having disabilities. For example:

• Whether or not they actually use the word “disabled” or “disability,” they are comfortable identifying themselves in some way as disabled. They don’t insist that their disability is unimportant.

• While they may work to improve their general health and everyday capabilities, they don’t spend much time trying to hide, lessen, or cure their disabilities.

• They know other disabled people and are interested in meeting others. They regularly share and discuss their disability experiences with other disabled people.

• They feel some kind of instinctive emotional kinship with other disabled people.

• They recognize that at least some of the difficulties of living with disabilities come from external factors, such as ableism, discrimination, inaccessibility, and bad policies and practices.

• They are open to the idea of working with other disabled people to make life better for all people with disabilities, not just to solve their own individual problems.

• They have an interest in connecting with other disabled people, disability advocacy groups, and disability culture … in person or online.

• They recognize that to at least some extent, people with many different kinds of disabilities share common experiences, common priorities, and the same basic human rights.

• They have definite opinions and beliefs about disability and disabled peoples’ place in society. These opinions may evolve, and sometimes change, but they are always an important part of their thinking.

How do you describe being a member of the disability community?

A note here about non-disabled people …

My feeling is that family, doctors, therapists, teachers, counselors, and other service provides aren’t part of the disability community unless they have disabilities themselves. Otherwise, the term ally should apply … and that label shouldn’t be treated lightly or like some kind of second prize. Allies are important!

New Year's Resolutions for 2019

New Year’s Resolution written in white chalk on a blackboard, with three colored post-it's below

Making New Year’s Resolutions is usually a tiresome cliché, but this year I have some anyway. Specifically, I have three New Year’s Resolutions that relate to how I want to live in 2019 as a disabled person.

Resolution 1: I resolve to use less disability jargon, and explain it when I do use it.

Disability culture and politics often seems fueled and even defined by unique and highly specialized words. For example: ableism, inspiration porn, institutional bias, intersectionality, eugenics, erasure, emotional labor, or identity first vs. person first language. All of these terms serve useful purposes, giving voice to experiences and ideas that disabled people share but often have a hard time describing to others. Other groups and cultures have their own “insider” language too, but the disability community in particular seems to rely on words and phrases not only to express our ideas about disability, but to actually shape them.

Unfortunately, this can make disability culture and communication seem intimidating and closed to outsiders and newcomers. That includes many people who actually have disabilities but don’t organize their lives and identities around disability culture and activism. And this can lead not only to an exclusiveness that’s the opposite of our community’s supposed value of inclusion, but also a remoteness that makes important ideas about disability literally inaccessible.

That’s why in the new year I will try to use more familiar, accessible language to explain disability concepts and describe disability experiences. Some disability terms are important in themselves, and can’t be improved on, like “ableism.” But when I use them I will at least try to take the time to explain them. I’m also starting a year-long blog series on disability terminology, called The Disability Alphabet.

Resolution 2: I resolve to reevaluate my relationship with social media.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not going to delete my Facebook account or stop tweeting. I’m not going to stop watching YouTube videos. And I’m not going to start preaching the virtues of “limiting my screen time.”

I’m old enough to remember when it was common for “smart” people to boast that they didn’t watch TV, or even own a TV set. It feels like there’s a trend growing in that sort of direction with social media. It’s becoming fashionable to abstain, and subtly look down on people who use social media. The thing is, for a long time TV really was mostly crap. And at the moment, social media seems to be full of crap, too. But Social media platforms are also vital links and communication tools, especially for disabled people. And like TV, we can choose what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

So what do I mean by “reevaluating” how I use social media?

First of all, I won’t be so quick to dismiss reports about what these services do behind the scenes. And I want to be more aware of how the algorithms that determine what we see, hear, and read can affect how we think.

I also want to reach beyond my own “friend” and “follow” lists to people and publications that approach disability differently than I do. I want to look for interesting disabled people who are not activists, who are just starting out on their journey, or who are still grappling with what, if anything, their disabilities mean to them. I’ll never support disability approaches I completely disagree with … like sheltered workshops and segregated “residential’ programs. And I don’t think I’ll ever like gooey “inspiration porn.” But I will try harder to understand where people are coming from and why they may talk about disability with different priorities, perspectives, and tastes than I do.

Resolution 3: I resolve to speak to more people about disability issues.

Sometimes it seems like I have two personalities when it comes to talking about disability. Online, I’m an extrovert. In person, I’m a shy introvert. I can be nervous, almost embarrassed to talk in person about disability issues even with people I know and love very well. I want to be bolder, more willing to talk to people in my “real” life about disability experiences and issues.

As I’ve already indicated, I also want to connect more with people who are disabled, but aren’t engaged very much in disability issues, culture, or activism … people who don’t already tweet, comment, and blog every day about disability. I’m talking about proactively bringing up political and cultural issues about disability that I think are important to discuss, with people outside the safe and comfortable “disability bubble” I tend to inhabit.

A good test for this will be my 30th college reunion this summer. Will I be able to explain my disability writing, nonprofit work, and activism in a way my old classmates will understand? Will I be able to do it briefly, simply, without rambling or trying to explain too much?

By the way, when I say I want to talk to more people about disability, I don’t mean being more generous with intrusive questions from strangers. While I have a pretty high tolerance for answering questions like, “What’s the matter with you?” and “How do you drive?”, I don’t plan on opening myself up more to strangers’ morbid curiosity. That’s one kind of emotional labor I don’t need more of in 2019. (Emotional labor is the kind of social interaction work that over time takes an emotional toll. See? I explained it!)

What are your resolutions for 2019? Or, do you stay away from resolutions entirely? Feel free to share and comment below!

Disability Blogging Resoultions

Cork bulletin board with a white rectangular piece of paper pinned to it, reading: Resolutions 1., 2., 3.

A blog post by my favorite political blogger had the exact opposite of its intended effect on me. It has encouraged me to blog some New Year's Resolutions. I will, however, try to follow Atrios' advice and set resolutions for myself, rather than sanctimoniously pushing them on others.

Here are my Disability Blogging Resolutions for 2017:

1. I will maintain a consistent weekly and monthly schedule.

This means posting a Weekly Reading List every Monday, a regular blog post on some disability topic every Friday or Saturday, a Disability Blogger Linkup the second Friday of each month, a Monthly Wrap-Up once a month, and an occasional Throwback Thursday repost from the Disability Thinking archives. It’s less than I used to post, but I am busier lately. If I can manage it, quality and consistency at this point is probably better than quantity.

2. I will write more about my own experiences with disability and the evolution of my disability thinking.

To start with I want to do more “I Used To Think …” posts, exploring specific ways my thinking about disability changed from one stage of my life to another. Beyond that, I want to share more about my personal disability experiences, and bring those experiences to bear more often in posts about current disability issues and culture.

3. I will make my writing about disability issues and activism more accessible.

To be honest, this one is also a little bit of a suggestion for other disability bloggers too. I think that one probably harmless way we can “reach out” to people who aren’t dialed in to disability issues … both non-disabled people and disconnected disabled people … is to cut down on the activist and sociology jargon, and when we do use it, explain it. There are good, solid reasons to use terms like “ableism,” “intersectionality,” “eugenics,” “erasure,” "inspiration porn," etc. They give names to real-life experiences that are otherwise hard to describe and pinpoint. But, these terms also tend to widen the gap between people who are active in disability issues and culture, and those who aren’t. Often, the crucial difference is education, or lack of it, and integration in a supportive disability community … or the reverse and very common experience of isolation in forest of non-disability. It’s not just terminology. I want to at least try to make what I write informationally and conceptually accessible to people outside the active disability blogging and activist communities. Being mindful about terminology is just one fairly easy place to start. We’ll see how it goes. And I invite readers and fellow bloggers to give it a try, too.

This seems like a doable list of resolutions. Please feel free to hold me to these commitments as the new year progresses!

#DisabledPeopleProblems

Photo of a green supermarket mobility cart

I just did a Twitter search for #DisabledPeopleProblems, because I wondered if anyone had made use of the hashtag to highlight the smaller problems and dilemmas that only disabled people have to deal with. I found a few tweets, but not as many as I thought I would.

I’m not talking about the big issues, like accessibility, discrimination, and messed up service systems … but rather the sorta hard, kinda annoying little things we deal with every day that don’t rise to the level of injustice, but which stick in our craw anyway.

For example, this afternoon I went shopping. My list was medium sized. That meant I had to decide whether to go the the big, full-service supermarket that’s got good parking, and always has plenty of mobility carts available, but is also usually crowded and hard to navigate? Or, do I go to my neighborhood, second-rate grocery store that only has one mobility cart, (that I don't care to risk riding on), but does have smaller shopping carts that are easier to push, and the store itself is both smaller and less crowded? On the other hand, it’s not very nice, and there’s usually at least one thing on my list that I find they don’t have. Which means another shopping trip.

As I said, these are not terrible problems. Most of the time, I can afford whatever is on my shopping list without having to completely rework my monthly budget, or dropping items off the list purely because of cost. I drive and have a car, so I don’t have to worry about adhering to someone else’s schedule … whether a friend or, say, a paratransit bus. I can get my groceries from my car to my kitchen, usually in just two trips, though to be honest, for me that is by far the hardest part of shopping. Things could be a lot worse, and for many disabled people, they are.

Yet, these are my little dilemmas, which I only really have to deal with because of my particular kinds of disabilities. I’m not complaining or comparing. I just think it’s interesting to explore the second or third-tier problems we deal with as moderately disabled people. And thinking of them as a variation of #WhitePeopleProblems helps, because that phrase carries with it a similar kind of ironic awareness about just how relative “problems” can be, depending on where you find yourself in society and identity.

What are your #DisabledPeopleProblems?

Language, Disability and the Mashed Potato Mountain

Photo of Devil's Tower, Wyoming at night, from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I have been thinking a lot lately about "person first" and "disability first" approaches to referring to disability and disabled people. I'm going to use this blog post to work through my thoughts on the subject. The following is what I think this is all about. I could be wrong, and I would be happy to hear from others who have different thoughts.

For a long time, (not sure how long,) saying "person with a disability" (person first language) was almost universally understood to be the progressive, social model way of talking about disability. It was the formulation advocated and taught by disabled people, (people with disabilities), to non-disabled people who inappropriately called us "disabled people," "handicapped," or "differently-abled." This is what I picked up in the early 1990s, when I was making the transition from someone who happened to be disabled into being a conscious part of the disability community. I was waking up to my disability identity and part of that was using "person first" language.

Fast forward to now, or maybe 2 to 5 years ago, and there is a pretty energetic counter-movement within the disability community towards saying "disabled person," and viewing "person first" language as an ableist, medical-model imposition by non-disabled people who are all too eager to "able-splain" our disability experiences to us. A lot of disabled people, myself included, maintain an uneasy tolerance for both approaches. We're not quite ready to condemn the formulation outright. But although we say it's a personal choice, it feels like there is an unspoken implication floating around out there that people who still use "person first" are uncool, maybe a little self-hating, and certainly misinformed.

As it was explained to me, the reasoning behind "person first" language is to emphasize our personhood, and more significantly, to assert that disabilities are merely characteristics, not defining qualities or end-state outcomes. Disabilities are "things" that we "have", not what or where we are. There is supposed to be some sort of comfort in that, a way of shrugging off disability as "nothing but a thing" ... not anything that means anything beyond dry practicalities.

The rationale for switching back to "identity first," as I understand it, is that "person first" seems to "protest too much." It feels a bit too eager to argue our personhood when our personhood should be beyond repeated linguistic justification. Also, many of us do feel that we are at least partially defined by our disabilities. Some disabilities are much more integrated into a person's life than others. An amputee may reasonably feel that his or her disability really is separate, almost incidental, and external to him or herself. That's harder to believe if you have cerebral palsy, quadriplegia, or autism, which have with physical and social effects that permeate pretty much every part of your life. And living your whole life with disabilities makes it even less sensible to believe in the separateness or insignificance of disabilities. Finally, many of us maintain that "disabled person" underscores the ways that we are "disabled" by an ableist society, which is a key concept of the social model of disability.

I have mostly switched to using "identity first" language when referring to myself. On the one hand, I came of age in the disability community at a time when "person first" was the way to go. So, I don't feel any ill-will about it, and I think there are good arguments in favor of using "person first."

On the other hand, I have come to feel instinctively that my disabilities are woven deep into the fabric of my life and personality. I no longer see my disabilities as some kind of add-on or baggage I carry with me. I am a disabled person. At the same time, saying that doesn't make me feel the least bit bad or "less than," any more than saying I was gay, if I was gay, or black, if I was black, or a woman, if I was a woman. It's an identity that includes certain physical experiences and social disadvantages, but it's part of me, so there it is.

Which leads me to think that maybe "person first" and "identity first" are also markers of where a person is in his or her journey with disability. Maybe "person first" really does make sense for people still working on how they relate to their disabilities. Maybe "identity first" signals a kind of final or maybe intermediate peace or equilibrium with disability. Again, that sounds a lot like a value judgment, but I really, honestly don't mean it to be. As I said before, some kinds of disabilities really are more external and can be kept at arms length and it works fine, while other disabilities make that stance almost nonsensical. So that's another factor.

One thing is absolutely clear. All of this matters. Language discussions like this should probably be less contentious than they often are, but they're not pointless. Like the guy building the mashed potato mountain in Close Encounters said, "This means something. This is important."

#CripTheVote: Notes On “Crip”

#CripTheVote with logo, a voting box with four disability symbols on the front

While #CripTheVote has gotten a lot of disabled people excited about participating in this year’s elections, a few folks have questioned our decision to make “crip” a key component of the hashtag. Since the complaints and concerns have been mostly expressed carefully, thoughtfully, and with respect, we feel it makes sense to explain ourselves a bit further, for those who might be interested.

Here is our thinking:

- Selective use of “crip” or “crippled” by people with disabilities is a conscious act of empowerment through “reclaiming” a former slur as a badge of pride. “Selected use” means we don’t use it all the time, in every situation. We exercise judgment in when and where it’s appropriate to use.

- “Crip” and “cripple” are also used ironically, to convey a bit of edginess, humor, and confidence, from a community that people tend to assume will be sad, bitter, and boring.

- Disabled people who identify with “crip” or “cripple,” generally share a strong sense of disability pride and deep involvement in disability activism and culture. We know what the social model of disability is, we are familiar with “person first” language, and we take pride in our disability identities. Calling ourselves “cripples” isn’t a sign of self-hatred or ignorance of disability history … quite the contrary.  

- “Crip” and “cripple” have been used this way by at least some disability activists for decades. It’s not a particularly new practice. It has, however, grown to be more inclusive, as the disability rights movement itself has gradually become more inclusive, both of people with all kinds of disabilities, and of people who have other important identities.

- “Cripple” as an actual label or insult is not just “politically incorrect,” it is archaic. It is a term from a bygone era, largely out of use even by ableists. That is not true of all negative disability terms. For instance, “handicapped” and “retarded” are both used much more often, and are therefore more risky to play around with than “cripple.” That’s why you won’t find many disability activists and proud disabled people using “handicapped” or “retarded” either as reclaimed terms or ironically.

- We chose to use #CripTheVote because it sounded more interesting, hard-edged, and likely to spark interest than safer, more “accurate” terms. It’s the difference between saying, “Rock The Vote!” and saying “Young People Really Should Register And Vote.”

- All that said, using “Crip” or “Cripple” this way isn’t to everyone’s taste. That’s fine. Some people have painful personal histories with the word. Some people despise irony and don’t like messing around with language. Some people feel it’s just too risky.

-We are not speaking for everyone, especially the disability community. We believe there is room for multiple hashtags and conversations--there’s something for everyone.

- However, context does matter, and if you read through the tweets that have come out of the #CripTheVote hashtag, you will see that is has inspired the very opposite of ignorance, stigma, or medical model paternalism.

- For a deeper look into the issue, read Crip Theory, from Wright State University.

Thinking Today

Illustration of a head in profile with four colored gears inside representing thought

I've said this before, though I don't know exactly where, so I feel justified in saying it again. If you want to know what it feels like to navigate everyday life with a physical disability, think about the last time you spent a day or more in air travel.

First of all, you can do it. It's not impossible. You can also have a good time doing it, and the payoff can be fantastic. However, it is tiring, there's lots of planning required, and if one small thing goes wrong or something isn't what you were assured it would be, it can quickly make the whole experience exponentially more frustrating and exhausting. Also, the central feature of the experience is that you are very much at the mercy of a glitchy system that you as an individual have almost no power to control in the moment.

That's what everyday errand-running is like for many if not most people with physical disabilities. Like I said, it's not unrelieved horror. There's no reason to feel sorry for us. But it is tiring and stressful, and we have to do a lot more delicate planning than most people do in their everyday lives. And when barriers crop up, like inaccessible buildings or no parking spaces, it's almost unbelievably draining ... just like air travel.

Super Bowl Ads

Picture of an old-style TV set with four disability symbols on the screen

There were two Super Bowl ads last year featuring disabled people, and it looks like there will be two more this year.

Obviously, TV ads run during the Super Bowl have more potential to influence American popular culture and attitudes than ordinary, everyday. Not every ad is either memorable or ground-breaking, but the opportunity, the audience, is there.

The problem is that it is so easy to make completely well-meaning, disability-themed ads that send the wrong kind of message. The message is almost always positive, but that’s not the same thing as helpful, or inclusive, or empowering. Some ads that “celebrate” disabled people distance them at the same time. And then there are the ads that use disabled people to flat-out make us go "awww" and maybe cry a little ... like we are both the Clydesdale and the dog that Budwiser Super Bowl ad. Appearance doesn’t always equal progress, and warm, mushy feels aren't really what we are looking for.

That’s why I sort of agree with the Advertising & Disability website blogger that it’s better to show a disabled person incidentally in an ad about something else than to construct an ad around a disabled person or some sort of heightened, carefully spelled out “message” about disability.

With TV and movies, there’s time and space to have both deep disability focus and incidental, background disability. But in ads, there’s just not enough time to say anything very effectively about disability, other than, “We exist, and we’re fine.”

Which is actually a pretty good message. It goes to far to call it “ground breaking,” but it’s nice to see and I think it helps.

The Shelf Life of Disability Jokes

Illustration of an old-fashioned microphone in front of a line or red theater curtains

I am a pretty big fan of Jerry Seinfeld’s TV work. There’s Seinfeld, obviously, which left a hell of a lot of graffiti in permanent marker on the interior surfaces of my mind, including at least one really great disabled character, Danny Woburn's Mickey Abbott. And more recently I have mostly enjoyed Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. On each episode of the show, Jerry interviews a comedian while driving them around in some kind of amazingly cool car, and then getting coffee at a coffee shop.

The most recent episode features Kathleen Madigan and her comedy partner Chuck Martin. I’m writing about it here because the show included two disability moments … an impromptu riff by Jerry with an assist from Chuck, and a joke from Kathleen.

First, while driving, Jerry spotted a banner reading “Celebrate Disabilities.” He read it back in his trademark “Can you believe this?” voice, and he and Chuck riffed on how obviously weird it was to cheer about being disabled.

Later on, Kathleen talked about a comedian she knows with Cerebral Palsy who also at one time had a drinking problem. Her line to him was that you can’t have both … you have to pick one! Because, you know, two serious problems that affect your communication are unsustainable. She threw in a mock “CP voice” just to illustrate, just to help the joke along.

I enjoy comedy. I may even qualify as a comedy nerd. So I am very reluctant to condemn disability-themed comedy bits on impulse. But these were not very impressive disability jokes, for one very specific reason.

It’s not because the jokes were hurtful or offensive, though it shouldn't be a surprise if some disabled people are offended, certainly by Madigan mimicking how people with CP talk. The real problem is that both jokes rely on faulty premises and too much feigned ignorance. I believe that Jerry Seinfeld must understand on some level that a cheery-looking sign reading, “Celebrate Disabilities” isn’t nonsense ... maybe a bit too cheerful for my taste, but not a contradiction. He has to be at least a little familiar with the idea of disabled people having some pride, and attempting to get other people to view them more positively. Jerry's joke implied that the sign makes no sense, but I don’t think the’s that ignorant … so the joke doesn’t ring true to me.

Similarly, I suspect that Madigan, (a veteran comedian, not a rookie), knows perfectly well that plenty of disabled people have a drinking problem. She may even be dimly aware that disabled people are statistically more likely than the average person to have drinking problems, for a variety of reasons. Now, I do think there’s a kernel of truth in her joke … that having two significant conditions at once is probably harder than having just one. There's a legitimate bit of dark irony there. But then her joke also depends on the idea that while her friend’s CP isn’t optional, alcoholism is. I mean, alcoholism is more readily controlled than Cerebral Palsy, but not by as much as Madigan’s joke would imply. And again, she thinks her story will be funny because of the surprise factor … a guy with CP and he’s an alcoholic?! But how many actual audiences today would think this surprising?

This happens a lot to “observational” comedians. They base their jokes on shared confusion, an assumed common bewilderment over seemingly inexplicable contradictions in everyday life. But as time goes on, we learn stuff. Many things that were confusing in the ‘80s and '90s are pretty familiar to most people now. That’s one reason why disability jokes don’t work the way they used to. It’s not just because they are offensive. It’s also because most audiences now are more knowledgeable about disability and actual disabled people, so they're not as perplexed and bewildered as the comedian is, or pretends to be. If the comedian asks, "What's up with that?!" and 80% of the audience can give a logical answer, then it's not that funny.

By the way, was Madigan talking about Josh Blue? And if Josh Blue told a CP + alcoholism joke, would it be funnier? How about Jerry taking Josh Blue out for coffee in a cool car? I would watch the hell out of that.