One of the things that some non-disabled people find surprising about me is that I’m not easily offended, and that I’m more than happy to make jokes at my own expense. I touched on that point fleetingly in my previous post, but I wanted to go into it a little more.
There have been occasions where I’ve been able to surprise people by making a little joke about having a disability. For instance, if someone fully-sighted slips up or does something silly, which I can imagine myself doing thanks to my sight, then I might say something like: “What’s the point in me having a disability, if you’re going to make all the mistakes I’m supposed to? You’re taking away my job here!” That kind of thing tends to both surprise the person I’m saying it to and makes them laugh, and more than once I’ve had comments about how well I deal with things day to day, being able to laugh at myself, not taking offence to things and not getting too frustrated by anything.
Some people have also worried that they’ve said something I might be upset about – e.g. “I see what you mean”, “Come and watch this”, etc – when the truth is I couldn’t care less about it. They’re figures of speech, that’s all! Or if I’ve been sharing a joke with someone, they might go along with it but then worry they’ve taken it too far, even though they really haven’t. My sense of humour often isn’t clean, believe me!
So I do have a very positive approach to things, and I enjoy using humour to make the best of the silly mistakes I inevitably make every so often. So it’s very rare that I get offended. And a fair number of people have remarked upon my upbeat attitude.
My reasoning is basically that I’ve had my disability my whole life, so I’ve never known any different. I’ve never lost the ability to do certain things, because I never had it in the first place. So any little frustrations I encounter are a normal part of my day to day life, and they only get annoying or upsetting if they stop me from doing what I’m trying to do. Otherwise, the vast majority of the time, I’m happy to laugh off silly little things that have no real consequences. I see no point in dwelling on them and getting miserable, and feel no desire to do so. I much prefer to laugh about them. Laughter is a powerful and wonderful thing, especially when shared with others, particularly friends of course.
As for people saying potentially offensive things, it’s all about the context really. I find it pretty easy to tell when someone’s having a friendly joke with me, and when someone’s just saying things to be abusive (which is thankfully extremely rare). If I’m with a good friend and they call me a stupid idiot for dropping something, then we’ll have a laugh about it. But if a stranger says the same thing in a patronising or derogatory way instead, then yes, of course I’ll feel a bit offended. But I’ll still brush it off and ignore them. I’m not going to feed anyone’s ego or make the situation worse by getting into a pointless argument with them.
There does seem to be this automatic assumption that disabled people must always get frustrated and upset when things don’t go right, or they can’t like any jokes being made about them whatsoever. But it’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s very true, as there are lots of disabled people who find life incredibly hard and frustrating, and even very depressing, and they need all the help and support we can offer them. But at the other end of the scale, there are those with a very positive and upbeat attitude, not letting anything stand in their way.
It’s not necessarily dependent on how severe the disability is either. I’ve encountered people confined to wheelchairs who are the happiest people I’ve ever met, while there are others with much more minor mobility issues may get constantly irritated and upset by how long it takes to do anything and may not appreciate any attempts at humour or even offers of assistance. So it really is a very subjective and individual thing.
It can also be frustrating when people assume offence on behalf of others, particularly where humour is concerned. Just because you’re offended, it doesn’t automatically mean the people you’re speaking for feel the same way. For instance, some people will protest against comedians who make jokes about the disabled, despite the fact that many disabled people will gladly pay to see them knowing that fact. I’ve seen Jimmy Carr live, for instance – I even got to meet him before and after the show – and had a super time. Yet I’m not a big fan of Frankie Boyle’s stand-up shows, as he does go a bit too far for my tastes, even though I’m sure he means no ill of anybody. I wouldn’t try to stop others seeing him just because of my own opinions though. If others want to see him, that’s fine by me.
Yet there is a phenomenon these days, particularly on social media, where people feel obliged to take umbrage on behalf of others, without caring what anyone else thinks. This was clearly demonstrated towards Stephen Fry on Twitter this weekend, after a joke at the Baftas. The lady the joke referred to is a friend of his and has now made it clear that she wasn’t upset by it. Yet people insisted on bombarding Stephen with abusive messages and demands for an apology, without any clue as to how she actually felt.
Sure, his remarks were an in-joke between friends, which perhaps wasn’t best suited to the stage. And the way Stephen reacted to those abusing him on Twitter wasn’t the best either, when he was caught up in the heat of the moment. It wasn’t handled perfectly by anyone involved. But even so, he shouldn’t have had any abuse to respond to in the first place. Abuse is never necessary. So I can’t blame him for stepping away, shame though it is.
Back to disability though, and the main point I’m getting at is a simple one. Just as there are an infinite range of disabilities and their severities, there is also an endless range of individualism in the minds of those who have them. So don’t judge the book by its cover. If you meet a disabled person for the first time, just be respectful and friendly. Don’t assume anything about their disability or their general outlook on life until you get to know them first. Chances are some of your initial assumptions will turn out to be wrong. So just interact with them as you would any normal person, being nice and showing a willingness to assist, without forcing anything upon them. You’ll soon get a sense of how they like to be treated as you get to know them, so don’t worry or panic about it. It’ll happen naturally, and more easily than you think. 🙂