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!

Never Give In?

In the midst of a novel, I stopped dead in my mental tracks when I read, “She had never given in to her disability.” “Given in”? As though disability were a foe or unstoppable force.

To declare that statement foreign to how I relate to my disabilities is a drastic understatement akin to declaring a drop of water the equivalent of the Pacific ocean. (How’s that for dramatic hyperbole? Hold on to your socks because there’s more.)

If the common understanding of disability is a “force” in “opposition” to me, then it makes complete sense that people think I’m amazing for walking out my front door. After all, I have made the Herculean effort to fight against something keeping me in place. No, actually, trying to push me in a different direction.

Our collective consciousness is full of entities in opposition — good versus evil, freedom versus dictatorial constraint, healthy versus infirm and even smile versus frown. No wonder we cannot escape Hollywood’s determination to continue to use disability as a metaphor for evil, a social understanding of disability as life-constraining, the notion that a physical condition is contagious and even that having a disability automatically categorizes you as unhappy. We are in opposition to our condition as good fights back evil, freedom overcomes totalitarian regimes, health is a goal we “achieve” and happy shines forth from sorrow.

What a load of manure. I’m no more fighting against my disabilities than you are struggling to keep your cells all together in the form of your body. You just are and disability just is. Fact, people. Fact.


In “Flowers for AlgernON,” Charlie Gordon, a man with a cognitive disability, undergoes a procedure that triples his I.Q., only for the experiment to ultimately fail, resulting in a return to his initial level of cognitive functioning. I am reading a novel in which a character with Aspberger’s Syndrome declares Charlie “stupid” for doing it in the first place because “now he knows what he’s missing.”

People born with a disability never experience life without the physiological limitations of their condition and common wisdom is that they never know what has been lost. While I agree they never know what they lack in terms of being sighted or neurotypical or hearing or possessing all limbs or whatever, I would argue that there is a vast amount being missed that such individuals are clearly, concretely and excruciatingly aware is not present – the social perks of normalcy.

Think about this for a moment. People with invisible disabilities – ones not known to others unless they are specifically told — struggle over whether or not to reveal their condition. Why? It cannot be because of the limits of their condition for those are present no matter what. Rather, it is about how others will respond to the new information. It’s about social consequences of possessing the trait of disability.

Anyone with a disability at some point watches those without a disability as they move through life. It’s on our televisions, in our books, on the bus and even in our own families. Non-disabled people are granted an ease in living from social interactions to dating to becoming a parent to joining a group, all because they do not possess a specific trait. They have done nothing to “deserve” this effortlessness nor do they usually realize its presence. It’s expected, counted upon and presumed to never be different.

Meanwhile, people with disabilities tend to live a different sort of life. All that ease and freedom and smooth sailing is denied them not because of the functional limitations of their condition but because of the existence of the condition.

And we know what we are missing. Though we might eventually reach the same destination, the journey will not be the same.

And we will watch people no better or worse than ourselves enjoy social lubrication we can never experience.

And it will be because we possess a trait. It will not be because of the consequences of the trait. It will be the mere presence of it.

Forever, we will be on the outside looking in. Forever, we will know what we are missing.

What I cannot enjoy because of the limits of my visual abilities is an insignificant fraction of what I know I am missing. If I could secretly see everything without anyone ever knowing it – if I acted blind though I could see – I would not feel like I suddenly gained some lost thing. What I will forever miss has nothing to do with not seeing and everything to do with what I do not receive because of blindness’s simple presence.

Here’s the best way I can explain it to non-disabled people:
It is the bar of amazing chocolate on a shelf high above your head that you are unable to reach. Meanwhile, many other people come by, take down the bar of awesomeness, have a piece they devour before you with obvious enjoyment and then replace the bar again beyond your ability to grasp. Over and over again. Your entire life. Maybe with a tiny nibble just often enough so you can never possibly forget the delicious flavor.


One of my long-time readers sometimes comes across comics with a disability theme.  He then types up a description for me.  As soon as I read this one, I knew it had to immediately go  up here.  among other things, it is an awesome example of “You may think I’m drowning, but this is the way I swim.”

            The artist is Fábio Coala and I think more of his work can be found at


            The actual comic is at


                The description is as follows:

               In the first panel, a boy with brownish skin and spiky brown hair under a green ball cap is holding a large cardboard box with air holes.  He asks “What is it mom?”  From off panel a voice says: “Open it!”

               In the second panel, the box is open.  A yellow puppy is emerging.  It’s right front leg is missing.  From off panel the boy says “A puppy!”

               In the third panel the boy is holding the puppy looking dismayed.  He says: “Wait… What kind of a puppy doesn’t have a leg?!”  The puppy is gleefully wagging it’s tail.

               In the fourth panel the boy is storming off with a tear in his eye.  He shouts “What’s the point of a sick dog?  This sucks!  I don’t want no puppy.  I don’t want anything.  I hate you!”  The puppy looks at him confused.  There’s a pink ball next to it.

               In the fifth panel, the puppy looks at the ball and wags his tail.

               In the sixth panel, the puppy takes the ball in its mouth.

               In the seventh panel, the puppy is running with the ball in its mouth.

               In the eighth panel, the puppy falls over with a “pof!”.  The ball slips out.

               In the ninth panel, the puppy has retrieved the ball and is running again.

               In the tenth panel, the puppy approaches the boy who’s playing a video game.

               In the eleventh panel, the puppy is looking at the boy while holding the ball and wagging its tail.  The boy turns and says “You’re not like the other dogs…  You can’t play.  You’re only there for people to feel sorry for you.  Don’t pretend you’re happy.”

               In the twelfth panel, the boy takes the ball and says “Gimmie that.  Now catch… and get out of here.”  The puppy looks elated.

               In the thirteenth panel he throws the ball.

               In the fourteenth panel the puppy is running.

               In the fifteenth it falls over again with another “Pof”.

               In the sixteenth, the boy says sadly, tears in his eyes, “See, you’re not like the others.”

               In the seventeenth, the dog regains its footing.

               In the eighteenth, it lunges and latches onto the ball, happy again.

               In the nineteenth, the boy smiles, tears still in his eyes.

               In the twentieth, he wipes away a tear and smiling says “It’s no use, right?  You don’t care about your leg… You’re happy anyway…”

               In the twenty first, the puppy looks at its missing leg and raises an ear in confusion.

               In the twenty second, it returns to looking at the boy with absolute joy.

               In the twenty third, we finally see the boy’s full body.  His own right leg is amputated above the knee.  He walks on crutches saying “OK, let’s play outside.”  The puppy runs ahead of him barking.

Believe Maybe

A couple of weeks ago, I read Frank Deford’s “An American Summer” which tells the story of Christy, a fourteen-year-old boy who moves to Baltimore the summer of 1954. Almost immediately he meets Cathryn, a twenty-three-year-old who contracted polio six years ago and now lives in an iron lung. It is an unlikely connection that leads to an extraordinary relationship.

At one point, Cathryn is trying to convince Christy to do something he doesn’t believe is possible. She asks, “Can you believe maybe?” The distinction she makes between what we believe and what we believe maybe is effort. If I believe maybe there’s a God, then I still have a question to answer and thus work to do. Believing there is a God pretty much settles the matter.

I have been struggling with the concept of hope for quite some time. It first became an issue when I realized hoping I’d get healthy was causing me to live for tomorrow and not enjoy today. Then hope got all tangled up with the lack of dating in my life. People kept telling me that if I didn’t have hope that I’d meet someone, then I never would. I argued hoping for something that was statistically unlikely was the road to insanity. After that, my life began to completely come apart at the seams and I was devoid of hope that it would get better.

Our hearts are designated the home of our emotions. Over the past four years, I’ve learned much about following mine and so far it hasn’t caused me to do something I regret. In fact, my regrets tend to stem from the times when I don’t or where circumstances won’t allow me to listen to what it says.

My heart was devoid of hope. It contained wishes, dreams and desires without expectation to tether them to reality. I think hearts learn, shaped by the negative and positive re-enforcement of life experience. My heart was taught not to hope because nothing good ever came from it and many let downs happened. What has hope done for me lately? Caused oceans of tears.

So, I’m done with the idea of hope for now. We’re on a relationship break.

in its place, I’m entertaining the idea of believing maybe. It seems far more suited to me for it allows acknowledgment of things that feel unlikely while not summarily dismissing the possibility entirely. It allows for effort, but it doesn’t have the black hole effect of trying and trying and trying and then watching all your trying vanish into some unreachable place with nothing to show for it. Instead, the trying is tempered by knowing it might be for naught or it might work.

When I think, “I believe maybe this mess my life has become can be fixed,” I do not hear from my heart, “Bullshit.” I hear an echoing “Maybe?”