What My Godfather’s Glass Eye Taught Me About Disability Humor
“When is disability humor appropriate and when isn’t it?”
When I was nine years old, my godfather lost his eye at the river when he took a particularly steep dive off a rock. The prosthesis never really fit that well, and it simply popped out and spiraled out of reach into the murky water. In those days, the wineries dumped waste in the river, and it was choked with a thick layer of slippery algae that coated our fingers as we dove again and again in search of vaguely round objects that might be his eye. Eventually, someone surfaced it, and, after a good scrubbing, he popped it back in.
We all found the incident hilarious, and it became a running joke. It was much funnier than the story of how he lost his original eye, a story I didn’t hear until many years later, a story that was rarely told, a story that wasn’t really very funny at all. The story of a man who plucks out his own eye in a battle of wills with his own mind is not a story you tell young children.
One day—I must have been around twelve or thirteen, then—I told this story to one of my father’s girlfriends, acting it out in full, stagy, living color, with all the bits that had been added to the story over the years as it was embroidered and embellished with subsequent tellings. She was utterly scandalized, and scolded me for making light of his disability.
“How do you think he would feel if he could hear you now?” she asked, indignantly, and I thought of how she always seemed nervous and on edge around my godfather, like he was a bomb on the verge of exploding.
“He’d probably be annoyed that you left out the part where he lost his swim trunks, too,” my father said, but while his tone was light, the look he shot her across the table was one that did not welcome argument. As I recall, my father didn’t date her very much longer.
Here’s a thing about disability that some non-disabled people find deeply disturbing: It can be pretty funny, actually, especially in retrospect. When I confidently charged after someone in a hallway at a conference and realized only after they hesitantly responded to my exuberant “HELLO!” that they weren’t the person I thought they were, it was mortifying, another reminder of how my face blindness interferes with my world. But in the retelling, the story becomes entertaining, a reframing of myself and the scene; this aspect of my disability is the butt of the joke, but I am not.
In-group humor can be a powerful tool of resistance, but it’s also one that scares those on the outside, and, in a way, that may be part of the seduction of this particular form of defiance. It is a claiming of a shared cultural identity, which requires people to confront the fact that disability is a shared cultural identity. This is, for many—and not just non-disabled people—a very radical statement.
Reclaiming disability identity through humor can be tied to larger things—to reclamatory language, for example, and retaking slurs and insults that have been used to marginalize our bodies for centuries. It’s why some of us call ourselves cripples, why I say I’m crazy like a fox,certifiable,loony-toons, why we refer to our bodies as busted, rebellious, broken, defective— sharp, angry words when they trip from the wrong tongues. Sweet, empowering ones when we say them, even as it horrifies witnesses.
“You shouldn’t really say that,” says a well-meaning friend.
“Well, ‘crazy’ is a bit pejorative,” says my psychiatrist.
We tell each other stories of triumphs and sorrows and awkwardness wrapped in humor because it makes them more bearable to relate, and we feel compelled to relate them, to find our common ground. This is how we take ownership when our own minds and bodies attempt to deprive us of our autonomy; when joints twist and betray us, when minds trap us in endless loops, when unruly legs refuse to cooperate. Collapsing on public transit is not funny. Falling through a businessman’s copy of the Wall Street Journal that he’s using to ostentatiously protect himself from the unwashed masses around him turns bodily failure into class war.
I don’t want people to feel pity when I tell this story, I want them to laugh uproariously when I hoot: “You should have seen the look on this face!”
It can also be a way of defusing the telling for a non-disabled person who is made anxious by discussions of disability. Making it funny, giving someone permission to laugh, humanizes the experience of disability and makes it more relatable, less uncomfortable. Exploring the frank, raw parts of ourselves often leaves people feeling helpless and uncertain about what to say—we know from experience that whatever they are going to say will probably be wrong. “That’s awful,” perhaps, or “that must be so hard,” or “you must be hoping for a cure.” So we find ourselves preempting, turning rough, black-and-white print into slick, glossy stories. Repackaging in cheerful colors.
“It’s okay,” we say.
Playing with disability, acknowledging it and laughing with it, is a way that some of us cope, but it’s a delicate, complicated dance, with extremely nuanced rules that aren’t readily apparent. For outsiders who don’t engage in disability humor—including the disabled people who very much don’t enjoy it—the rules can seem arcane, arbitrary, and utterly mystifying. Who is allowed to say what, and when? When is disability humor appropriate and when isn’t it? Why can two wheelchair users enjoy a hilarious back-and-forth exchange that gets soured when a disabled person who doesn’t use a chair for mobility plunges in and misreads the room?
This becomes most particularly fraught not when it comes to bridging the divide between disabled and non-disabled, but to navigating the spaces between different frameworks and experiences of disability. Unsettling and offending non-disabled people rarely troubles me—there is value in confrontation that forces people to rethink the way they view the world. But harming fellow disabled people—or, as some prefer, people with disabilities—is, in a sense, to harm myself. Is your liberation any kind of liberation at all if you must trample on your fellows to accomplish it?
Within disability circles, we sometimes discuss the concept of conflicting accommodations: Two access needs, both critical, that are also diametrically opposed to each other. The person who needs to use a service animal attending a party where someone is extremely allergic to animals, say. There is no way to reconcile these needs. The presence of one person makes it impossible for the other to attend safely, but how can we decide who should be allowed? These conversations are uncomfortable, sometimes stressful, at times forcing us to admit that even in a perfect world, there will be insurmountable obstacles.
I think of conflicting accommodations when we push the limits of disability humor—when I crack a joke on Twitter and another disabled person shows up in my mentions, dismayed, betrayed, angry. For me, that self-expression is vital to my identity and how I interact with the world; but for that person, humor causes intense discomfort and unhappiness, makes them feel marginalized and unheard. Neither of us is wholly right, but neither of us is wholly wrong, either. We exist at opposite ends of an experiential gap that may never be bridged.
When I tell the story of my godfather’s eye now, most disabled people laugh—especially those who, like me, have vision impairments. The image of my godfather, bald as a cue ball, balancing on top of a rock before soaring into the water in a perfect dive, the thought of his teal swim trunks swirling to the surface a moment before he did—they become deeply uproarious in the retelling. Non-disabled people tend to laugh more hesitantly and uncertainly, not sure whether they are allowed. Some disabled people receive the story with stony faces, something judgmental in their body language, and I falter, unsure of myself, feeling small and clumsy.
There’s no way to predict how disabled people will respond to disability humor. It cannot be mapped out along generational lines, or picked apart by disability, or shuffled by the model of disability people use to talk about themselves and their lives, or even sorted by level of disability activism. Ardent disability rights activists who get arrested for health care might tell screamingly hilarious stories about the times airlines broke their wheelchairs, while a mental health activist who testifies at Congressional hearings might find jokes about being crazy deeply offensive.
Within our ability to poke fun at ourselves lies a deep, sometimes unspoken constant: Sometimes, disability is deeply unfunny. At a political time when the government is declaring open war on our ability to survive, the story of a prosthesis that kept popping out because Medicaid refused to pay for a new one takes on a much more sinister tone. Many of us spend our time fronting and performing, putting a good face on existential terror. We live with deep, visceral reminders of the seriousness of disability, of what is at stake. If our humor becomes more caustic, perhaps this is why—because sometimes, we must force ourselves to laugh or we will begin to scream and we will not be able to stop.