Laughter is the Best Medicine

Matan Webinar: “What’s So Funny About Disability?”

I am Rabbi Ruti Regan, the Disability Scholar
in Residence at Matan and today we’re going to talk about Purim and we’re going to talk
about disability humor. One reason I was really excited about this
topic is because it’s an opportunity to talk about Purim for adults. So, for kids, Purim is kind of the silly humor/costumes thing and, for kids, that’s appropriate, wonderful and necessary. And, for adults, Purim can do a lot more than that. Because Jews are really good at humor and
we do things with humor for reasons. Because really the most important jokes are
about the least funny things. Most Jewish humor is about things that really
aren’t funny at all. Which is why we joke about them. We joke about antisemitism, collective trauma,
the struggles of being Jewish, really unspeakable things. And I think unspeakable and unthinkable things. Because joking about these things makes it
possible to think about them when it otherwise might hurt too much, might be taboo or might
not be possible. Sometimes you have to laugh or cry. Some things just get unbearable to think about
with direct language. And the laugh or cry thing, on Tisha B’Av
we cry and we don’t have hope. Every day can’t be Tisha B’Av. On Purim, we laugh and we make fun of sacred
things and call things into question in a way that goes deeper that what we would normally would do with humor because there’s power there and there is also danger. Humor can make things bearable. This is part of why it’s powerful. This can be a really good and necessary thing.I guess with occupational humor, for instance, morticians
might joke about death in order to make dealing with death all the time bearable, and there’s
jokes that you don’t tell around people who are not in that. But likewise doctors, first responders, tell
a lot of occupational humor for that kind of reason. Also, teachers have a lot of occupational
humor You know, early childhood educators might, for instance, make jokes about dealing
with bodily fluids and toddler attention spans. At the same time, humor making things more
comfortable is not always a good thing. So I don’t know if you’ve ever been around
some guys who like to tell jokes that have some pretty nasty messages about women and
then if you call them on it, they say, oh, I was just joking. As though that makes it better, as though they didn’t
say it. And people wouldn’t say stuff like that directly. Sometimes they feel comfortable saying it
in a joke. So the fact humor makes things more bearable, more
comfortable, more thinkable can be good, can be bad- with great power comes great responsibility, right? Humor can change the way we look at things. In its most basic form, humor can say, wow, that’s
ridiculous. It can say that’s okay and you don’t need to
be ashamed of it. It can say that’s awful and no one should
feel good about it. Humor can say taboo things and it can call the status
quo into question. The thing is, some things are taboo for a good reason. Some things aren’t okay. Some things aren’t funny. And some things people should feel good about. So making sure that our humor goes to the right
— can be challenging, and it’s also important, and it is why Purim for adults is really hard
work that can require a lot of thoughtfulness. Powerful humor is inherently high risk. Change is not always good. There’s a reason not every day can be Purim. Because we don’t want — on Purim, we take
risks that we would not normally take humor-wise, because we can create a space that can kind
of contain these risks and contain this kind of attention. It’s with great power comes great responsibility. In order to do Purim for adults, we need to
plan and we need to be thoughtful about it. So what are the risks of humor? Humor can make good things feel shameful. It can make shameful things feel good. Jokes have content and we need to take the
content seriously. So, let’s talk about risk mitigation. So part of this is keeping in mind the difference
between desecration and humor. We make jokes about sacred things on Purim,
but sacred things are still sacred on Purim. We read from a Megillah scroll, Esther scroll,
and it has to be written by a scribe for the sake of the sanctity of the Megillah. Similarly, how the Torah has to be written
by a scribe for the sanctity of Torah. And I think one reason we do that is because
even in this context where we’re, like, making jokes about the most sacred things, we’re
also still preserving sanctity and showing a certain amount of respect for it as well. We take risks we wouldn’t normally take, but
there’s still a line. And respect still matters. And our humor still needs to respect everyone’s
basic human dignity. I always say in social — like in action circles, like,
intent is not magic. Jokes are powerful. Jokes can hurt people. Even if we say “I was just joking” or I didn’t
mean any harm,” it doesn’t erase harm we might have done. Something as powerful as humor requires caution
and thoughtfulness. And we see this in our texts about Purim. This is a kind of ridiculous text but it makes a good
point. It is forbidden to rely on miracles, which
I think is something it would be worth keeping in mind in politics as well. We remain responsible for our actions. So, this is from tractate Megillah, the part of the Talmud that talks about Purim and also Torah scrolls incidentally. So, Rava…And there’s this idea that you have to get really
drunk on Purim. Not everyone agrees with that. It’s controversial. And here is a text that I think is pushing back
on that some. Rava said: A person is obligated to become
so drunk on Purim, until he does not know how to distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordecai. Then the Gemara kind of pushes back on the story. Rava and Rabbi Zeira prepared a Purim feast
with each other, and they became so drunk that Rava really didn’t know right
from wrong. And he got up, and G-d forbid, killed Rabbi Zeira. The next day, when he became sober and realized what he’d done, he asked for God’s mercy and was able to bring him back to life. The next year, Rava said to Rabbi Zeira, let’s
go have another Purim party together. Rabbi Zeira said, apparently, “miracles do not happen
all the time. I’m not going to rely on that. We need to take some responsibility.” So even on Purim at this height of silliness,
humor, risk and potential bitetiness, we’re responsible for what we do and the text reminds
us of that and the sanctity of the Megillah and the prayers we say surrounding the Megillah also
reminds us of that. So we’re going to get into some more disability-specific examples shortly, but before we do that, I would like to share some Jewish
humor examples that are sort of general “here’s how Jews approach humor and here’s how
Purim for adults can be a thing.” Here is a joke that’s about fear of antisemitism
and the effects it can have on our culture. Again, this may or may not be readable. Slides are available, but I’m going to read
it off the screen. A Jewish man passing through Texas for a short
stay on business checked into a rooming house in what you would call a “frontier town.” Not to be conspicuous, he dressed in Western
attire and went into the only saloon in town. He was surrounded by men in cowboy clothes,
wearing six-shooters and looking very gruff. He ordered a beer. He is sipping his beer and trying to be as
inconspicuous As possible when the biggest, burliest, scroungiest-looking specimen walks
in and proclaims, “Ah hears there is a Jew in here!”. The Jewish man cringes and says nothing.“. “Ah know you’re in here and you better speak
up,” says the stranger. The Jewish man can’t take it anymore. He stands up proudly and says, “I am a Jew!” The cowboy stares at him angrily and says, “What the hell are you hiding for? Come on, ah need you for a minyan.” Not that people from Texas really talk like
that, which is another layer, but, like, there’s this fear that Jews deal with, which is very
real and can go to some ridiculous places. And this joke kind of talks about, you know,
this fear is real. It’s not just you. It’s, you know, not necessarily something
to be ashamed of, but it doesn’t always reflect reality, and, you know, this is a mistake
one might make, and it can separate us from each other, right? There’s a lot of ways you can interpret that
level, that joke, but this joke has a basically positive attitude towards Jews and towards,
you know, our relationship with the difficulties of dealing with antisemitism. And there’s a joke about bystanders, which
I think cuts a little deeper. Loewenstein, who had escaped from Germany
just moments before Hitler stormed into his house, was in a restaurant in DC, sipping
an espresso, people watching. Two Germans entered the place and sat down
at a table adjacent to Loewenstein, where they discussed Hitler boisterously. “Hitler is not as bad as his enemies say he
is,” said one. “You’re right,” said the second. “The trouble with Hitler is that he is his
own worst enemy.” “Not while I am alive!” shouted Loewenstein. So, getting into the question of humor, like
what’s shameful and what’s not? What’s shameful is, you know, failing to
take Hitler seriously, is like acting like it doesn’t matter when someone is doing something
really evil. And what’s not shameful is confronting them. What’s not shameful is thinking they’re doing
something wrong. And we have a lot of jokes that have this
kind of message. I’m going to skip that one, but it’s in the
slides. So we also tell another joke. Like there’s the jokes about
antisemitism, then there’s the jokes about prayer and doubt. About our relationship to our liturgy, our tradition
and the things about it that we might not always be so sure about. Two Rabbis argued late into the night about
the existence of God, and using strong arguments from the scriptures, ended up indisputably
disproving His existence. The next day, one Rabbi was surprised to see
the other walking into the shul for morning services. “I thought we’d agreed there was no God,”
he said. “Yeah, but what does that have to do with it?”
replied the other. And I think… the reason I think this joke is
funny is because we have a ritual structure and a culture that can — that is strong enough
to sustain us even when we’re really doubting and hurting and not sure what, if anything,
to believe. There’s still something sacred that we have
connection to, and that’s funny, but it’s also real and important. And so I think this joke names it in a way
that’s worth naming, and that also it means something good. I’m going to skip that one as well. Here is the final general Jewish example. This is
one of my favorite jokes, especially now. Again, it’s long and I’m going to tell it now. If you want to look at the slides after, it’s
in the slides. So, it’s pouring down rain in the flood plain
of Mississippi valley, The rising river begins to threaten all manner of private homes, including that of the local Rabbi. The water coming into the ground floor, a row boat with police comes by and the officer shouts, “Rabbi, let us evacuate you, the water level is getting dangerous.” The Rabbi replies, “No thanks, I’m a righteous
man who trusts in the almighty and I’m confident that he will deliver me.” Three hours go by, and the rains intensify,
at which point the Rabbi has been forced up into the second floor of his house. A second police rowboat comes by, and the
officer shouts “Rabbi, let us evacuate you! This water is getting dangerous.” The Rabbi replies, “No, thank you, I am a
righteous man, who trusts in the Almighty, and I am confident he will deliver me.” The rain does not stop, and the Rabbi is forced onto the roof of his house. A helicopter flies over, and the officer shouts
down, “Rabbi, grab the rope and we’ll pull you up! You’re in terrible danger!” The Rabbi replies, “No, thank you, I am a
righteous man, who trusts in the Almighty. I am confident that he will deliver me.” Floodwaters continue and the Rabbi is swept
off the roof, carried away in the current and drowns. He goes up to heaven, and at the Pearly Gates
he is admitted and comes before the Divine Presence. The Rabbi asks, “Dear God, I don’t understand. I’ve been a righteous observant person my
whole life, and depended on you to save me in my hour of need. Where were you?” And God answered, “I sent two
boats and a helicopter, what more do you want?” Right? We don’t rely on miracles, we take responsibility. And another level at which I appreciate this joke is that
our need to take responsibility doesn’t mean that God’s not there. And it doesn’t mean that sacred things aren’t
worth pursuing. It just means that we’ve got to use the brains
God gave us and act in the world. So a question you might be asking at this
point is: What does all of this have to do with disability? Well, part of what it has to do with disability
is the that the work of inclusion can be really hard. And if we want to sustain our long-term ability
to keep doing the work of inclusion and tikkun olam, making the world better and more inclusive, we really
need — like we really need to be able to joke about it in the Jewish way. Another thing this has to do about disability
is being disabled can be really hard. And just like dealing with any other hard
thing, humor helps and humor can hurt. And so upending the sacred, looking at, questioning
things, taking Purim-level risks, some of what we say in advocacy context can get to somewhat
ridiculous places. Some of what gets said to us is kind of ridiculous,
and humor can help us to get to where we actually want to be. Part of that is remembering the risks involved. Joke mistakes can undermine inclusion. They can send a message that inclusion itself
is ridiculous. We don’t want to be mocking inclusion. We want to be mocking barriers and we want
to be mocking things that are off track. Joke mistakes can also incite despair because
hope can be the butt of the joke. There are a lot of jokes that are like… ha-ha,
you thought something was going to get better, that’s funny! We don’t want to tell that kind of jokes. We want to tell jokes where despair is ridiculous,
barriers are ridiculous, exclusion is ridiculous, giving up is ridiculous, and inclusion and
equality are not. We don’t want to tell jokes that humiliate
people. We don’t want to tell jokes that humiliate
people with disabilities fighting for inclusivity, so we need to consider here, who’s the butt
of the joke? What’s being questioned? What’s being validated? So, in inclusion specifically, sometimes we say and do
things that are a bit ridiculous. Purim humor can help us to name that. Naming the ridiculous things can help us to
identify the real things and get real. And we’ve got to be careful to identify it correctly. So, here’s an example and here’s some disability-specific
silliness. We can in inclusion work kind of tie ourselves
into knots trying to get the language right in ways that can go to some ridiculous places. Like one thing is we argue a lot over person-first
language versus identity-first language. Do we want to say disability? Do we want to say “people with disabilities”? Do we want to say, you know, something else? So one way I like to put the way this can
be funny is, like, so if a noun and an adjective got into a fight, would any disabled people with disabilities
win? Probably not. Another is individuals who happen to experience living
somewhere on the euphemism spectrum. So, like, all of these layers of our fear
of talking about it, and all of these layers of wanting to avoid naming disability, talking
about disability, having sort of this hyper awareness of language in ways that can get
us kind of off track talking about what’s the correct way to refer to it instead of
talking about it. You know, if you go to places like very special
unique challenges, but really they’re just like everybody else. Okay. And one thing in the disability community
regarding this is sometimes people use #disablednotVoldemort. Fear of the name increases fear of the thing itself. So we’ve got sort of this linguistic silliness. We’ve also got a two truths
and a lie kind of silliness. For instance, there’s a lot of things we say
that are sort of mostly true but not always true, and Purim can be a good time to make
jokes about the mostly true but not quite entirely always true or doesn’t always feel
true kind of things. So when we say inclusion benefits everyone,
there are a lot of important ways that’s true. Everyone is better off when we have an inclusive
culture and when we commit to including everyone and we treat everyone as fully human for no
other reason than anyone can become disabled at any time, and if we’re inclusive, that
means that if you become disabled, you will not lose your community. So, it also means that people with disabilities
have things to offer that the world needs, and that we really do ourselves a real disservice
as a community when we exclude people and sort of sideline people, because we need them. We need all of our people. We can’t afford to lose any of them. Inclusion benefits everyone in those ways. At the same time — so two truths. Maybe even ten truths, right? 99 truths. At the same time, there are really moments where
it doesn’t feel true, where inclusion can be a real struggle, and in which inclusion ultimately
benefits everyone, at the same time, when you’re teaching a class and there’s one kid
who, like, disrupts everything and you haven’t figured out how to include successfully and
everything’s really hard. In that moment, inclusion benefits everyone
might not feel true in the short term and we run from it a lot because it doesn’t always
feel true, especially in the short term. And there’s also, from the perspective of people with
disabilities, that talking point can hurt a little. Because it can lead to the thought “do we
have to benefit others in order to be welcome?” So if we wanted to make jokes about some of
that, we might make a joke about those moments where it’s a struggle. We might make a joke about, well, okay, but
do we have to benefit everyone to be welcome? Nobody else does. When something is both valuable and fraught,
it can be especially important to find the humor in it. Especially important to be careful. So we’re making jokes about the sacred thing. We’re not desecrating sacred things. And the difference is important. So some other things that we may say in inclusion
can also get really ridiculous. Like inclusion doesn’t have to be difficult
or expensive. And I think this is maybe more two lies and
a truth. You know, the proportion’s a bit different,
because there is this weird thing where people assume that all accommodations are expensive
and that, you know, including quote/unquote those kids will somehow ruin our schools and
tank the budget and ruin everything. And that’s ridiculous. And we need to push back on that. Because, you know, actually, sometimes all
you have to do is welcome people. Sometimes all you have to do is, you know,
print out a schedule or give them a crayon instead of a marker or let them type or whatever. And that’s a really important truth. At the same time, a lot of things really do
require money. Braille’s expensive, captioning’s expensive,
ASL is expensive. Fixing our buildings is expensive. And when we don’t acknowledge that, we don’t
budget for it. Staff ratios that we need can also be expensive. So thinking about — there are also a lot
of kids we don’t need to teach — no, we need to teach all kids. There are a lot of kids we don’t know how
to teach, and we need to do research on how to make that work better, and we need to spend
time on problem solving. And that’s hard. You know, it’s worthwhile, it’s valuable, it benefits our
community, it’s obligatory, we need to do it. And, it can require effort and money. And we need to think about that. So if we wanted to make a joke about this, maybe make jokes about both the completely over-blown presumption of expensiveness that people have. And we might joke about people who think that
they can solve this without budgeting for it or, you know, the contradictions. But we don’t mock the idea that accessibility
is possible and within our capacities. We mock the things — we make fun of the things
that are observed. We call things into question and we respect
the sacred. So another thing that gets kind of ridiculous
is the whole “I don’t see disability” thing. I have a conspicuous eye problem. So, like if sighted people tell me something like that,
I kind of know that it’s going to be hard to get real. Because if you can’t acknowledge — I have
a mirror, I know what my face looks like and if you’re pretending you don’t, how do we
get real? At the same time, seeing people as solely
their diagnosis or their disability is really dehumanizing. We’re all fully human. And pretending that ignoring disability will
make it stop mattering is completely ridiculous because disability is important, and we need
to pay attention to it. So, again, if we want to make fun about this,
we could make fun of diagnostic overshadowing, of presuming that disability means more than
it does. We can also make jokes about the mistakes
people make when they think that ignoring disability will somehow make it stop mattering. So this is a joke from a disabled activists
on this “I don’t see your disability” thing. It’s a comment they drew. It says ,”I don’t see your disability.” “You don’t?” “This could be really awkward if we meet some
stairs.” And so, you see a wheelchair user, you know, with
a thought bubble angrily banging his head against the wall and a walking person walking up stairs, saying, “Why aren’t you coming? I thought you wanted to hang out.” So, you know, if you don’t acknowledge and plan for and
think about disability, it gets really hard to make accessibility happen. So I like this joke. And a continuation of the joke, which I also
think is fun. On the other hand, they’ll never catch me
based on your description! So it’s a cop talking to a laughing wheelchair
user and the cop is saying, “Did you see someone of this description run this way?” And it’s like a standing person. The wheelchair user is laughing because, yeah,
if people don’t see disability, you’re probably going to be looking for someone else. And so we can make jokes like this that can
help us to deal with these complicated realities without demeaning anyone. So then there’s this even more kind of ridiculous
complicated contradictory disability awareness thing. So people — often the same people say both,
“I don’t see disability” and “we need to raise disability awareness.” Okay. So if disability doesn’t matter, awareness
of what? Like practical ignoring disability skills? Like awareness of the fact that disability
doesn’t matter? Like what does that mean? And so I think there’s a lot of jokes that
could be made about that kind of thing. Because, you know, we say these really well-meaning
things and really don’t want discrimination and stigma. Sometimes, things get ridiculous and naming the ridiculous can help us to honor
the sacred. Another thing that goes to some kind of ridiculous
places is… is “we all have disabilities!” Well, we’re all different. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but
not everyone needs a lawsuit to get into a building. Not everyone needs an IEP in order to get
access to education. Not everyone is treated as only conditionally
welcome. Not everyone’s body is the same. Disability means something really important. And when people whose bodies and brains fall
really into this normative realm of what’s considered acceptable, what’s planned for
and what’s considered welcomed in schools, people from — who that is their experience
talk about everyone having a disability, I don’t feel included, I feel invisible. Because there’s this whole range of experiences
that people with disabilities have that are really not universal, and that are different
from the range — you know, the range of difference in talent and ability that non-disabled people
have. At the same time, we’re all different and differentiated
instruction and these approaches really do benefit everyone, and we need to talk about
that in a way that isn’t erasure. So, again, by mocking the ridiculous element
we can uplift the sacred element and get where we want to be. So let’s see if this video will play. The sound is not working, so never mind. It’s a good clip, but it does not seem to
want to play nicely with our sound system today. So I’ll give you a link after. So there’s a big difference between jokes
along the lines of “teaching is hard” and jokes along the lines of “kids are awful monsters.” And I think that you’ve heard… probably, if you’re in education, you’ve heard both kinds of jokes. And there’s sort of some teachers who probably
shouldn’t be teaching who just seem to delight in competing to see who
can make the joke about — the most cutting joke about how terrible kids are. I think we see this especially with teenagers. There’s a lot of ha-ha, teenagers are like disgusting jerks! And, you know, working with teenagers can
be hard on a number of levels, but, like, we need to respect the people we work with. And there’s a difference between jokes about
things that are hard versus jokes that are degrading to people. If we’re careful and we make fun of the right
things, we can uplift the sacred things. Similarly, jokes about how hard inclusion
is are different than jokes about disabled people ruining schools or ruining classes,
right? And I think we need to be clear when we make
jokes about inclusion being hard that we’re not blaming people with disabilities and we’re
not blaming disability. Disability is not the problem. Disability is normal, natural and the problem
is that we haven’t been building inclusive programs, societies and cultures long enough
to anticipate and account for it. So jokes need to respect everyone as fully human. Jokes should not be hateful. Some things are not ridiculous. The desire for equality is not ridiculous. The desire for human dignity and age-appropriate
autonomy is not ridiculous. Right? And to tell you a story about this and why
this is important to me. I go to a lot of disability conferences and there are often self-advocates with developmental disabilities presenting, often on their life
story and self-advocacy journey and often they will say things like, you know, “I’m
an adult and I want to control my life.” And the room will laugh as though that’s cute. In the same way people might, like, think it’s cute and
hilarious when, you know, a five-year-old says “I’m going to be president tomorrow.” And similarly, I was at a conference, a
person with a disability said, like, you know, “I’m 25 years old. I want to go drink at bars.” And people laughed at that in a way that made
it pretty clear that they were laughing at her and they were not laughing at the idea
of preventing a 25-year-old from deciding for themselves whether or not they want to drink. So there’s a lot of legitimate jokes that
could be made about that kind of situation but we need to be careful and not make jokes
that mock the idea of autonomy, agency and dignity. Similarly, the expectation that we work at
creating accessible environments is not ridiculous. And the feelings that people with disabilities
have about discrimination are not ridiculous and we need to be careful. Questions to ask about our jokes when we’re writing
them or planning them or thinking about how we use humor, occupationally or whatever other
context, think about what’s the joke validating? What’s it denigrating? What’s it questioning? Who’s it about? And do you agree with the message the joke
is sending? If you think about this, it’s much easier to
make the right kind of joke. I’m going to give some examples now of some occupational humor jokes that I think have really gone off the rails and that are examples of the kinds of jokes that we really need
to not make. And, like, if you’re a person with a disability who had traumatic experiences
with certain kinds of therapy and degradation, these might be hard. I had some trouble after sifting through a bunch
of them to find good examples. So one joke I’ve seen a lot of speech language
pathologists make, is like speech-language pathology, we have ways of making you talk. Or “I can talk you into anything.” It’s an example of a store that sells humorous
stuff for therapists. And there are also other examples like physical therapists making jokes about torturing kids. And just there are some similarities between
therapy and torture sometimes and sometimes it’s not even a similarity. Sometimes it’s just the reality. Like people with disabilities who live in
certain institutions are still being tortured with electric shock, tortured with starvation
and manipulated into doing things against their will. And the rate of abuse of people with disabilities
by care providers they trust is very high. So I can talk you into anything, is like not
a great joke to make in that occupation. You know, if we’re feeling like we’re — what
we’re doing is similar to torture in some way, we should not be making ourselves more
comfortable with that. We should be thinking about how to change
that. Similarly, we shouldn’t feel — tell jokes
that either might make us feel more comfortable abusing the power we have or might make people
around us feel more comfortable about abusing the power they have. And these jokes really aren’t funny to people
who have had their boundaries violated in speech therapy or have had therapists or disability
professionals manipulate them into doing things that were violating. And I know a lot of people that’s happened
to. And I think that most people who make these
kinds of jokes really do mean well and don’t think about — like the implications this
has for emboldening people who might be abusing their power or blurring the lines or how these jokes
land for people with disabilities. I think…Not everyone who tells these jokes means well. I think most people do. My friend who is a speech-language pathologist
told this joke and realized after I explained it why it bothered me. And I think it’s really — this is a mistake that can
be very easy to make. This is an example of how — intent is not
magic. We need to be careful about jokes and we need
to think about, are we punching down? And if so, how do we stop? Here is a joke that I think could kind of go
either way. It’s a meme image and it says “that moment
when you realize your patient’s goal of preparing a 4-step meal is more advanced than any meal
you’ve made in the last week.” This is occupational therapy joke. There’s like some frozen food on a plate, not even sure what they are. Just like pierogies or something, I guess. And this joke is one where intent really matters
and context really matters. Because the reason I think this is funny is
that disabled people are often held to really ridiculous levels and standards, right? And this joke could be naming that as a problem
and saying like, wait a minute, why am I saying — like disabled people always need to do
this 4-step thing. When given my life, I’m not even disabled and I
need easier meals as an accommodation because of how busy and tired I am. Or it could be saying, you know, I should
be totally comfortable with this. So this, depending on context, this could be intended
and heard in either way. Which is why clarifying context and thinking
about context can be very important. So to be clear, I’m not saying don’t make
occupational humor or don’t joke about inclusion or the complexities. I’m saying, think about the message the joke
is sending. Who’s the target? What we mean and whether it’s what we intend
to mean. So I’m going to shift gears into talking about
some examples of like some disability-positive disability jokes, mostly made by people with
disabilities. And another caveat caution here is that not all
jokes that are funny and good should be told by everyone. Generally, jokes about your own experiences are one thing. Making fun of somebody else’s body, brain
or communication is not okay. There’s some jokes that a lot of people with
CP or various mobility disabilities make that I wouldn’t make myself because I don’t have
that kind of disability and it might veer into mocking, you know, things that are not
mine to mock. So, I think not always but generally better to avoid telling
jokes about a disability you don’t have. Or things that — or things that you can’t
relate to. Because sometimes you can relate to similar
experiences. This is a caution. It being funny and appropriate and a good productive joke does not mean that everyone in all roles should tell it. So this is a comic that I really appreciate. I do think it’s an “everyone” kind of joke
and it’s sort of an absurdities of certain kind of discourse joke. And this is — there is a circular hole in
the wall and there is a trapezoid, a triangle and a pentagon looking at the hole in a kind of dismayed way. And the word bubble, it says “I don’t know what
you guys are complaining about…” And a very, smug happy circle saying “If you want
to make it through, just be yourself!” And then you can see the square and the
triangle who can’t fit through the hole looking like angry, dismayed, ashamed, like there’s
expressions that could be thought of various ways and the circle hole has some kind of cracks. And I love this joke because “just be yourself”
is so well-meaning and so reflects the fact that disability is not a universal experience. Because when you’re disabled, people tell
you that you’re just being anxious and that you just need to be yourself, speaking of
speech therapy. Like my speech therapist told me over and
over that I was just imagining that the other kids didn’t like me and that I just needed
to give them a chance and talk to me and that I was just being anxious. I wasn’t. Like, when they made jokes and like dared each
other to touch me because of how gross and weird that was, I was not imagining that. And just being myself was not the solution. And so, you know, when you are discriminated
against and people who are not say in a very well-meaning way, just be yourself, just be confident, it can
be really inadvertently cruel, bad advice. So what I think this joke is validating is
being angry and upset about being told “just be yourself” when your access needs aren’t
met or you face discrimination. And it also says — it’s kind of comforting
in saying — it’s really hard not to feel ashamed when somebody really confidently says something
like that. And so I think it’s comforting, this joke. In that it says, actually, you’re not the one who
has something to be ashamed of. What it mocks is the idea of telling people
“just be yourself” instead of acknowledging and fixing really major access barriers. You know, I like who I am. I am, you know, pretty confident person most
of the time and no amount of confidence will enable me to, as a triangle, fit through a
round hole. Part of what I do with my confidence is advocate
for the holes to be expanded into a shape I can fit through. And speaking of positivity, I didn’t put this
in the slides, but I now wish I had, so I’m going to talk about it. Stella Young, who is a physically disabled
comedian, if you want, Google her TED Talk, Not Your Inspiration, it’s really great. One way she puts this, related to this joke, you know,
people tell me “Just think positive, the only disability in life is a bad attitude.” But
no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. And no amount of positive thinking has ever taken
a shelf full of books and converted them to Braille. It’s not happened once. You know, positive thinking doesn’t fix inaccessibility. Accessibility thinking and solution-oriented
problem solving does. So related to that. This is a joke of some sort of inspiration, inspirational
poster meme. There’s an inspiring meme going around. There’s no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs. Sort of looking down on a pastoral, nature
thing, looking down a flight of stairs, someone has mountain-climbed stairs or something. Then there’s a wheelchair user is looking kind of dismayed,
looking at his wheelchair and then looking kind of angry dismayed. And I love this on a number of levels. Some of which I don’t really have words for
because the facial expressions and body language make it. So this joke tells a story about — you know,
the meme tells a story about one kind of world and the joke about it tells a different story. In the world according to this joke, it’s wrong to shame people for using the elevator. And being disabled is nothing to be ashamed
of. Being a wheelchair user and using elevators
is validated. Having access needs and doing things in a
way that works for you is validated. What’s mocked is people who make fun of other
people’s access needs and people who ignore the existence of people with disabilities
when they’re talking about how the world works. You know, ignoring — being disabled and having
access needs and using elevators is okay in this joke. Ignoring the existence of people with disabilities
is not okay in this joke. So by mocking something bad, this joke uplifts
something sacred. It also points out that people with disabilities
often feel shame over these kind of things, and says that they have nothing to be ashamed of
and people hurting them do. Which, you know, I could… you know, I could
do a whole webinar just on this image, so I won’t. And then there’s sort of this joke. This is from an autistic artist T-shirt store. I think Red Bubble. And it says “This is not what an autistic looks
like: Autistics are people, not shirts.” Most autistic people I know find this joke funny. Most non-autistic people I know might not. So, let me explain the joke. So, autistic literalism humor. One quality of how autistic people often, but
not always, use language is that autistic people are often hyper-literal. And within this hyper-literalism, you know,
it doesn’t mean that autistic people can’t use humor. It means that autistic humor is often different
linguistically. Similarly, almost every autistic person I know
makes sarcastic jokes about their ostensible inability to understand sarcasm. In this joke, the things that are okay are, like, literalist
autistic humor and autistic speech patterns, and claiming a pride identity, right? It’s claiming pride in a political identity
with references to the popular “this is what a feminist looks like” kind of shirt. So sort of like a pride thing, holding ground,
being who you are in a way that is funny and validating. And, like, incidentally, since this happens
every time — I’m just kind of assuming that somebody’s going to say “this was very funny
but can’t you use person-first language?” And, to that I say, you know, the organized autistic community does not prefer it. And they answer — the answer from before
is, “If a noun and an adjective got into a fight, would any disabled people with disabilities
who happen to experience living life somewhere on the euphemism spectrum win?” I think there’s a variety of language and
mostly what we need to do is just kind of get real. And there’s another joke, which I really appreciate. This is from Senator Tammy Duckworth, who
is — I forgot which state she represents, but she is a veteran who lost both of her
legs in combat in Iraq, and she’s now, like, really connected with disability advocacy
and has been, like, a leading opponent of HR620, which would essentially gut the ADA,
and she makes a lot of disability jokes. And here’s one she tweeted. It’s a picture of herself on a rowing machine
with one of her prosthetic legs broken. And she says, the caption “Just broke my leg
rowing. I blame my hardcore pace. Luckily, it no longer hurts to break a leg!” And just, like, to me, the fact that there
is someone in the Senate who understands this disabled humor and can tell these jokes from the inside just means a lot to me. Like I don’t mean this in a partisan way. I’m not endorsing candidates. I wish that there were lots of people from both
parties in the Senate making these jokes. But I loved seeing this and it got retweeted
prolifically in the disabled community on Twitter. And so the world according to this joke: Disability
is not scary. And we don’t need to be afraid of it. So she’s mocking the idea that disability
means that your life is tragic. And in this joke, not only is her disability
not tragic, it has a major advantage. When she breaks her leg, it doesn’t hurt. And she still has a life that’s good. And I think that a lot of people with disabilities
make jokes like that and I think that one of the most powerful things we can do as disabled
people, as disability professionals, as people — as educators, as people who are all of
those things, or one of those things, I think that we can really, through humor, send the message that we don’t
need to be so afraid. And that we don’t need to be so afraid of
disability indifference and moving through the world with a body that’s different. It’s the idea that being disabled means that
your life consists of nothing but suffering. That’s completely ridiculous and false. And I think that there are ways that it’s
appropriate for people with disabilities to make these jokes. There’s a different kind of joke that it’s
appropriate for people without disabilities to make in these roles. But, you know, people without disabilities,
one thing you can do is quote us, and quote a range of people with disabilities who think
this is ridiculous. And you can also — maybe if you’ve been afraid
of disability, make jokes about that kind of experience, why you were afraid, why you
now think it’s silly, and what’s different now? We can all make jokes that uplift sacred things
by mocking ridiculous things. And it can take planning. It can take caution. And there’s always a certain amount of risk
involved. But we can really make the world much better. So as we move into Purim, it’s probably too
late to incorporate this into shpieling this year, but just think about that as you think about the jokes that are being made and as the jokes you might want to either make or stop making or learn more about in
the future. So, I think we have a few minutes left for
questions. So I’m going to look at the chat now. Would anyone like to ask a question about
any of this or make a comment? So, while you’re thinking, I am going to go
to the Matan Disability Acceptance and Inclusion Pledge that we made for Jewish disability
Awareness and Acceptance Month a few years ago. Because it would also be a good thing to keep
in mind as you’re thinking about the jokes you do and don’t want to tell. How can you uphold these values with your
humor? I acknowledge that ability, disability and
humanity coexist, and I pledge to see my students as they are. I will not look past their disabilities; I
will seek to understand. I will not overlook their abilities; I will
seek to support them effectively. I will not ignore the humanity of my students;
I will remember that they have individual interests and a perspective of their own and
that they were each created in the image of God. And disability-related jokes that contradict
that message are probably not the ones we want to be telling. Disability-related jokes that uphold that
message can really make the world a better place. And I think that Senator Duckworth’s joke
is, you know, an amazing example of that, and may we all find more… Okay, I think I see that there’s a question. This is even more complicated for non-visible
issues like Adult ADD. Okay. So I’m probably going to do a webinar just
on this in the future. Like, I increasingly am not so sure about
the category of invisible disability. So I have multiple disabilities that are called
“invisible,” but I’m not sure that they really are. I’m not sure that we’re actually invisibly
disabled so much as ignored. And related to that there’s a theory that
girls are under-diagnosed with autism and other things because they can mask symptoms. But I know from looking at my childhood records
that they were, in fact, documented. So it wasn’t, you know, it was that sometimes
things are not interpreted or taken seriously as disabilities, and I think that that happens
a lot to people whose disabilities are called visible, too. Because people who are, say, wheelchair users,
the wheelchair is not the disability. The wheelchair is the access tool. And people who are wheelchair users are often,
like presumed to have abilities that they do not have or disabilities that they do not
have. For instance, people often assume that, you
know, just one step won’t be a problem and don’t take seriously the extent of a disability
for which just one step is an insurmountable problem. And also, similarly, people, assuming that
if someone can stand, that means they don’t need their wheelchair. And so I think that the experiences of disability
and being ignored and not taken seriously at some points versus being seen solely in terms
of what people presume are impairments to be in others, I think that happens across
disability categories and has some commonalities between things that are called invisible and things that are called visible. So, I guess in short, I agree with you, it’s complicated. Which is why we should make complicated, nuanced jokes that can hold up. Okay… So I think we have a minute left. So, I wanted to tell you about some things that are happening now and things that in the works. Currently, we’re doing a giveaway for a box
set of picture books that can be used for inclusive storytelling, some of which have
a kind of humorous message. Some of which is sort of this Purim humor,
disability humor that can be used to reduce threat-level kind of thing, and some are sort
of more earnest kinds of picture books, it’s a range. But, anyway, we’re doing a giveaway and you can enter on our website, {contest is over}. It’s also kind of all over our Twitter and Facebook. And my next webinar will be about Pesach, including
all four children at the seder and in the Jewish conversation. So, thank you all for coming and be in touch if you
have questions or comments. I got a request to repeat the link. So I have put it in the chat. Thank you for coming and I hope to see you
at the next webinar and other Matan events!

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