Learn to Laugh

Freud categorized certain common coping strategies as “defense mechanisms.”  Most people are familiar with at least a few of them – repression, denial, regression and rationalization. Later, scholars broke them down into hierarchical categorizations.

Believe it or not, humor, where an uncomfortable or unpleasant internal reaction is transformed into a more enjoyable emotion, is considered one of the “higher-order” defense mechanisms.

Since high school, I’ve known my tendency to seek the humor in the things that happen to me was a way of coping with the inherent discomfort.  A couple of weks ago, a line from a song reminded me of this:


It’s only funny ‘cause I learned to laugh.


How many of us, with what degree of frequency, teach ourselves to laugh instead of cry? Another musician’s words come to mind:


You have to laugh at yourself, because you’d cry your eyes out if you didn’t.


I worry about how people with disabilities handle the ongoing, daily discrimination and oppression they face. I’ve watched many people become increasingly bitter and then be rejected more because of that bitterness.  I’ve noticed others become comedians, poking fun at themsellves before another can do it.  (This is often hard to discern from those who use humor as a means to dispel others’ discomfort.)  Sometimes the humor turns dark, as if the bitter and the funny were shaken well, then poured.  As I think back, I know my own use of comedy has evolved, from protective to bitter to something cleansing.

No matter how we have each learned to cope, our coping sprang from a need to handle constant emotional assaults from the outside world.  Yet, our world praises the disabled comedian and shuns the bitter one.

I’m not going to suddenly give up my tendency to find the funny, but I am beginning to wonder if bitterness is, in fact, a more honest reaction.  How people with disabilities are treated is painful.  Transforming that hurt into humor is far more enjoyable for everyone involved, but is it as honest as bitter?


The following was posted as my contribution to  Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016 


No, it’s not some unusual facial expression that people with disabilities have nor is it a reference to an outer layer or surface. Think blackface, popularized in the 19th century as a means for white actors to portray people of color in theatrical performances by using makeup to blacken their faces, as well as wearing specific costumes and adopting certain mannerisms.

The term cripface has gained popularity as a means to refer to actors without visible disabilities who play characters with visible disabilities. Obviously, it is meant as a condemnation of the practice by those who find it insulting, disempowering and marginalizing.

Hollywood has a tendency to use actors without visible disabilities to play parts calling for a visibly disabled character. The practice is so common that, except in the case of Michael J. Fox or Marley Matlin, you can more or less assume a character with a disability does not have that disability in the real world. (“Growing Up Fisher”, “Joan of Arcadia”, “Riding the Bus with My Sister”, “The Piano”, “My Left Foot” etc.) In fact, chances are you can name more characters with disabilities than you can actors with disabilities.

The reason this happens is a chicken and egg explanation. Actors with disabilities are not cast in roles, unless the character specifically has a similar disability, so they do not get a lot of work. This means they have trouble gaining enough industry admiration to be cast in roles that include a disability. Instead, established talents with name recognition are sought to play characters with disabilities.

The practice is complicated by the fact that disability is often still utilized as plot devices to elicit certain responses from the audience, based on stereotypes and reliant upon inaccurate distortions of what it means to live with a disability. There are not strong, happy characters who happen to have disabilities filling the pages of novels or wheeling across the silver screen. If disability is a characteristic, it is a noted trait given significant attention and composing a major part of the plot because no creative gains would be made by a character with a disability who is “normal.” And, of course, if you have a character with a visible disability, that disability must somehow advance the plot. Thus, there are villains with scars, paraplegics bravely shouldering the tragedy of their situation and blind lawyers who made it through law school without anyone realizing they were blind. (It’s a major plot point in “Growing Up Fisher” and also impossible.)

Interestingly, blackface is attributed with both the proliferation of harmful stereotypes and bringing African-American culture into the mainstream. More than fifty years after the practice faded from the spotlight, the stereotypes blackface perpetuated are alive and well in our society, clearly demonstrating the harm the practice caused. Yet, there is no way to know what benefits the practice may have propagated, such as influences on music.

Proponents of casting people without disabilities in roles calling for disability often argue that at least characters with disabilities raise the public awareness of the existence of disability. Whether accurate or not, mainstream society is being exposed and how can exposure be bad?

Personally, I am not a fan of cripface when it does nothing to advance an accurate portrayal of disability. There’s no reason, other than actual storyline, to make a villain scarred, unless you are relying upon a noxious stereotype about ugly meaning evil, so don’t do it. However, if a role is based on a realistic portrayal, then anyone should be able to play the role. And, of course, the opposite should hold true. An actor with a disability should be able to play a role that does not specifically call for a disability. Why can’t a wheelchair user be an extra? For that matter, why couldn’t a “Gray’s Anatomy” patient have a prosthetic limb without it being a plot point? When disability is reduced to a characteristic that some characters have and some do not, that sometimes is relevant to the plot and sometimes is not and that doesn’t get an actor included or excluded from a role, then I won’t have a problem with cripface because it will no longer be a noteworthy event. It’s only a problem when prejudice, stereotypes and bigotry hold sway over Hollywood instead of a more balanced view of another facet of human variation.


This entry was written as my contribution to Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015. For some interesting reading, check out what others have contributed!

An Inconvenient Truth

  • Social isolation has been a blight plaguing me for a long time. Ten years ago, when I first began attempting to eradicate it, I acted as if I was the cause. Obviously, I was behaving in a socially abhorrent manner to the point that people actively avoided my company.

Informed by the feedback of others and anything pop psychology had to say, I began rehabilitating my personality and behaviors. “Maybe you talk too much.” “You should have a list of possible topics to discuss.” “Are you showing interest in other people?” “It is your job to put others at ease.” “You need to be understanding of other’s ignorance, educate them and then be patient.” “You need to try harder.” Everything I tried failed and I thought this meant I had failed.

Nobody likes to see themselves as a failure, so I searched for another explanation and began considering how chronic illness limited my outside activities. Without a job and active lifestyle, I was not encountering The Magic Number of People required to find close friends. Armed with this explanation, I got creative about using my energy and became more active in the world beyond my doorstep.

Guess what? Stepping outside did not launch me into a crowd of close friends. Because I kept hearing that doing what you loved would bring people like you into your sphere and be transformative, I modified my approach. Still wasn’t surrounded by a circle of intimates.

I went back to the hypothesis that chronic illness was simply too limiting and added to it. Perhaps blindness’s impact on social interactions, making eye contact, facial expression and nonverbal communication impossible, was severely limiting my ability to connect with others. Concluding the situation was beyond a mere mortal’s control, I gave up.

With nothing better to do, I began working on building my skill set by volunteering and joining a blind group. Now busier than ever, I still cannot find intimate connections, so maybe it isn’t my chronic illness’s limitations? Immersed in a community equally unable to engage in nonverbal communication, I did not suddenly sprout intimate connections, so maybe it isn’t blindness’s fault? Eighteen months of psychotherapy and the only consequence is a therapist who enjoys my company to the point that I had to ask him to enjoy me less and treat me more, so maybe I don’t have a huge personality flaw?

Here is the inconvenient truth that everyone on the planet seems to wish to avoid admitting: Disability makes non-disabled people uncomfortable and there is not a damned thing the person with the disability can do about it. Yes, as a society, we have made great strides in accepting physical difference, but we have not reached the point where having a disability is to simply possess another form of human variation. Eventually, we will arrive at the place I dream about, but not next month or next year. This type of fundamental change moves slower than glaciers and all I can do is my part to keep the process headed in a good direction.

You know what would really help? People not pretending we live in enlightened times where my disability isn’t leading to social isolation. The creative delusions that it is somehow my failing and thus my problem to fix is not only untrue but actively damaging to me and more importantly millions of others. I’m not asking anyone to become my new best friend, but could you at least stop believing this is about me? It’s about all of us.


This year I again proudly participate in Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014. For more information, please go to:

fhttp://tinyurl.com/BADday201Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014

Magic Words

About a year ago, I hit a wall known as My social Life Sucks. Nothing I tried – and I tried everything short of a personality transplant — seemed to increase my social connections or generate more emotional intimacy in my life.

Enter my fabulous therapist – a fifty-year-old man who somehow gets it. He’s made it clear from day one that he knows nothing about disability, yet I felt more understood in my first session than I have with the majority of my friends. When I tell him I think I get ignored in groups because I’m disabled, he not only believes me but understands why it happens. That’s valuable in a way words cannot express.

We have hit an impasse related to my social interactions with non-disabled people. FabTherapist believes there are a string of words I can say that possess sufficient potency to get people to notice who I am. A carefully crafted handful of sentences have the power to shift perception from “Blind, incapable, weird looking person” to “Smart, funny, intelligent woman.” His argument is that people meet someone like me and suddenly don’t know their role. For a stranger, the situation is full of unknowns, fears and a general sense of uncertainty. Giving them some context and a function in the social dynamic will allow them to feel comfortable with me, freeing them to notice who I am.

I believe words have power. They don’t have that much power. Non-disabled people need time and exposure to move past their initial impression. The problem is that most don’t take that time and in fact, their subconscious writes me off often without consulting the conscious mind. There are no magic words to subjugate this process.

Okay, there is something that has the power to derail things – shock. It’s why some women with disabilities dress provocatively — to shock potential dates out of the “not sexual” mindset.

What would I need to do in order to shock people? Would that be in line with my personality?

“Yes, I’m blind. Be careful. You don’t want that to cause you to underestimate me. That would be a bad idea.” The last sentence would be delivered with a slow smile. Not even sure I’m capable of a slow smile on purpose let alone uttering those words.

If I could conjure up the MagicWords, I still get stuck on the idea that I should have to say them. It’s not my job nor should I take on the task of easing non-disabled people past their prejudice. Disability is not exclusively the responsibility of the disabled. As a society we have created this state of affairs and as a society we should deal with it.

Besides, if I noticeably aid people in coping with their discomfort, I’ve set a precedent. “You made me comfortable, Jen. Now, when it comes to your disability, I expect you to do all the rest of the work too.” Do I want to establish such a pattern?

Yet, inaction will not change anything. Principles are great, but they don’t make you feel loved and valued.

Besides, women have needs. And hormones. and needs that go beyond hormones.