By Tony Deyal
While many people with handicaps are the bees knees, or outstanding in their own rights, it is the squeaky wheels that get the grease. This is why the handicapped are also the butts of all kinds of terrible jokes like, “What do you call handicapped kids doing karate?” Partial-arts. Or, “What does the handicapped man say to the cops when he’s mistaken for a criminal?” “Don’t shoot, I’m unarmed.” Then there is the Irishman who sent out this message, “To the handicapped joker who stole my bag. You can hide, but you can’t run.” Finally, and not too soon, “Jokes about the handicapped aren’t funny. No one knows what it’s like to not walk a mile in their shoes.”
I used to think that there are no dirty jokes or limits to comedy. But like those above, some hurt like hell if they are aimed at you and one of your handicaps. For those of us born in the mid-20th century, especially after the Second World War, the great health achievements had not yet happened. The death toll from epidemics like smallpox, measles and diphtheria was high, as were the effects of infectious diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, enteritis, pneumonia, influenza and HIV. Polio was the most feared disease in the world. Many who survived it faced lifelong consequences from deformed limbs.
By the mid-20th century, the poliovirus was found all over the world and killed or paralysed over half a million people every year. It was not until 1988 that the World Health Assembly passed a resolution to eradicate polio. Sanitation and hygiene were poor and even handwashing needed to be forced on people. Infant mortality was also extremely high.
I was born with one of the muscles in my left eye pulling up that eye so it was out of sync with my right eye. In other words, I was “cross-eyed”. Even now, almost 79 years after, I have to take the jokes like, “My cousin’s cross-eyed girlfriend dumped him. We have a feeling that she was seeing another man on the side.” In my case, teaching in a secondary school, there was, “Why Mr Deyal cross eye?” Because he couldn’t control his pupils. While today, even in the Caribbean, the eye problem can be treated with glasses, patching, eye exercises, medication or surgery, in those days there was no cure.
What was worse is if it was not dealt with before you were about ten years old, it could not be corrected. So, many of us, boys and girls, had “cokey” eyes and my nickname at school was “Cokes”. I made a joke of it with, “I would have preferred to be called ‘Pepsi’ but that name was already taken by another family member.” What I did instead was turn the many jokes from my family, friends, teachers and colleagues into a challenge. I am essentially one-eyed but I’ve made sure this has not limited or stopped my reading, writing, playing cricket and football, or driving cars and boats. In fact, my wife can’t stop me from seeing other women. She knows that I am cross-eyed.
The people who had polio and survived (and there were many of them, including teachers and students in the schools I attended) as well as those damaged on the roads, sugar estates and oilfields had it “double rough.” They are the ones that have the most jokes thrown at them like, “I got into a debate with a handicapped man today…Apparently it didn’t help my case when I told him he didn’t have a leg to stand on.” Or, “I saw a golf buggy parked in a disabled bay earlier…I couldn’t help but wonder what his handicap was.”
There is also: “I know many handicapped people with a great sense of humour. Shame they don’t do stand-up comedy.” The one I like most is, “Of course, mentally disabled people should be allowed to have jobs…But to make the president of the United States is a bit too much.” These are the ones that are easier to take. But there are extremely tough ones like “I made a joke about disabled people in a group of friends. My blind friend just sighed and told me it wasn’t funny. I guess she couldn’t see the humour in it.” And, “What do you call a group of disabled people in a hot tub? Vegetable soup.” These are the hardest ones to swallow.
If there are rules about how to respond to jokes when among disabled people, the first and easiest one is that it is totally ok to laugh when disabled people make jokes about themselves. I like this one by a father talking to his disabled son, “People overcome adversity all the time son… Look at Beethoven. They told him he was deaf, but did he listen?” However, it is not ok to laugh at a disabled person. The worst thing you can do if you’re a non-disabled person is to joke about disabled people. This makes you an “ableist” or person without disabilities who believes you are superior to people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, the jokes about the disabled will never stop. The good news is that the squeaky wheel exists and helps the disabled to go after the grease. It is the first-ever satire publication that focuses on the experience of having a disability. It challenges common misconceptions, highlights absurdities, criticizes imbalances, and does it all with humour. It reaches out to its readers, especially those who have disabilities, with “Let’s laugh more.”
For example, I took “5 Ways to Clarify You’re (Badass) Disabled and Not (Inspirational) Disabled.” The organisation’s creator, Steven Verdile, explained, “Everyone knows about the two types of disabled people. The traditional type is sad and inspirational, like the tiny boy with crutches who begs Ebenezer Scrooge for titbits of hard bread with cold porridge. The new type of disabled is totally different and very cool, like the hot people with mobility aids from the woke TV commercials.” His first advice is, “Curse Excessively” – no “please sir” or “ouch.”
His second is: “Disregard your safety by doing risky things for fun” like bungee jumping, tongue-kissing strangers or crowd surfing in your wheelchair at a punk rock concert.” Next is, “Dress like 2047”- “wear neon colours and do other things that make it clear you belong to a cyberpunk video game and not in your grandma’s nursing home.” Then comes: “Avoid looking directly into the camera”; and finally, the most important, “Be proud of your disability.”
There are already comedians on the wider circuit like Robin Tran, Joe Urell, Brad Williams and the winner of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing”, Joseph Blue. My favourite “Blue” joke is, “People always think I’m drunk. I was walking down the street one day and the drunk tank picked me up. I said, ‘Wait a minute, fellas, I’m not drunk – I have cerebral palsy.’ The cop said: ‘That’s a pretty big word for a drunk.’”
*Tony Deyal was last seen asking his friends and readers to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.