Funny or Not? How and When to use Therapeutic Humor with Persons with Disabilities [PART 2]

Funny or Not? How and When to Use Therapeutic Humor with Persons with Disabilities [Part 2]

by Jennipher Wiebold, Ph.D. and Penny Willmering, Ph.D.

In our previous blog, we discussed how having a disability is not always tragic; in fact, many aspects of life with a disability can be filled with joy, irony, and humor! However, there is a right way, and a wrong way to use disability humor, keeping a few rules in mind:

  1. Would you make the joke in the presence of a person with a disability?
  2. Is the joke with the person or about the person?

Our first example in last [PERIOD OF TIME]’s blog discussed the wrong way to use disability humor. Now let’s talk about some of the correct ways!

Example 1.

“I used to have a friend in a wheelchair. We fell out though because he was sick of me pushing him around and talking behind his back.”

Luke, a gentleman who uses a wheelchair, repeated this joke in a 2014 article that appeared in a newsletter for EasyStand, a company that sells wheelchairs.

Looking at the humor guidelines,

  1. Is this a positive behavior or joke to tell in the presence of people with disabilities? In this context, the joke is told from an “insider perspective” and pokes fun in a “pun-ny” way at the situation.
  2. Is this joke about a person with a disability or does this joke make the person with the disability the joke?

The joke is about the situation and is told in a lighthearted manner, without making fun or bullying the individual involved.

Example 2.

The cartoon is an example of pictorial humor. According to the humor guidelines,

  1. Is this a positive behavior or joke to exhibit/repeat in the presence of people with disabilities? In this context the joke is funny because many of us can identify with the fact that our dogs “train us.” Thus, the joke is built upon a shared experience by many of us
  2. Is this joke about a person with a disability or does this joke make the person with the disability the joke?

cartoonIn this case, the joke is about the situation and is told in a lighthearted manner without making fun of or bullying the individual with the disability. The dogs are the joke, not the disability! It is also based on a common human condition (our dogs training us!).

In addition to considering the two questions addressed above, sometimes media or individuals in the public eye can provide clues to appropriate use of humor. For example, The TV show “Speechless” does a great job teaching about “hows” and “whens” to use disability humor in a positive, inclusive manner. Comedians with disabilities such as Jack Carroll, Maysoon Sayid, and Josh Bleu can also provide insights into appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) uses of humor as it applies to disabilities.

Now that we know a bit about disability humor, the question that remains is how can friends, family, and helpers use disability humor in a therapeutic way? It is prudent to remember Victor Borge’s quote that “laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Therapeutic humor is a great way of making a connection and engaging in social bonding, thus reducing the distance between people. People with disabilities (and without disabilities for that matter) can use humor/disability humor to normalize situations or the absurdity of situations, redirect attention away from an embarrassing situation (oftentimes referred to as heroic recovery), and reduce caretaker stress. It is a great tool in your box of positive tools for happy living!

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