I have a mug that says “I’m stumped!” and a t-shirt that says “The bear was faster,” accented with claw marks. Another t-shirt highlights the disabled parking symbol with the tagline: “I’m just in it for the parking.” As an above-knee amputee, I find these hilarious.
Not everyone shares my sense of humor, and I respect that. But for me, humor, language, and empowerment are entangled. And laughing at myself beats ranting about ableism or pretending that my difference doesn’t make a difference (to my students, colleagues, even strangers).
I make it a practice to laugh in order to short circuit emotional pain, to dispel or diffuse it. I don’t always pull it off, but I have found that I can often use humor as an effective preventative to feeling pain at unkind, embarrassing, or just unwanted attention to my disability.
When I was in graduate school, parking was tight, as it is seems to be at all universities. It was commonly remarked that a university parking permit was merely a license to hunt. I joked one day that people only wanted to have lunch with me because I drove, and they wouldn’t have to give up their parking spaces.
I was able to park after lunch because I had “the parking spot of the goddess,” meaning disabled parking. Back then I still had my right leg, but it was in poor shape due to numerous reconstructive surgeries and terrible arthritis. After that quip, referring to disabled parking as “goddess parking” and my placard as the “goddess tag” became normative among my friends and colleagues, and I continue to use it today.
My spouse Glenn is responsible for our term for what’s left of my right leg following the amputation. I’m told this bit of leg is properly referred to as my “residual limb,” more colloquially called a “stump,” but neither of those appealed to us. Glenn coined “leglet,” which is decidedly more playful.
My friend G’linda shares my joy in sarcasm and my resistance to seeing disabled people as inspiration porn for nondisabled people. G’linda often invokes Bette Midler’s classic song. “It’s you—the wind beneath my wings!” she quips. We laugh, and then she pretends to be worried. “Wait a minute—does that make me the wings above your wind?!”
I loathe meetings (the worst part of being a professor). One of my go-to jokes when discussing committee meetings, council of chairs, faculty affairs, or other meetings I do not wish to attend is to say, “Sorry, I can’t go to that meeting. I only have one leg.” I hold up my index finger and shake my head in fake dismay, reiterating, “Just one,” as though this is a perfectly reasonable justification.
My BFF affectionately refers to my amputation as “the paper cut,” harkening back to a conversation we had years ago about people who tell me that they understand how I feel because their grandfather had an amputation or because they had to have knee surgery to repair a torn ligament\. “Yeah,” she had joked, “I know just how you feel. I once had a paper cut!”
My little brother—now in his 40s, but still my little brother—came up with one of the best lines ever. We were in sight seeing in San Francisco. I was exhausted and clearly having trouble walking. I needed to rest, and I apologized to Mark, my sister-in-law, and niece. Mark looked at me with mock annoyance and said loudly, “Again with the one-leg! Jeez, let it go already.” Several people looked at him, dismayed (obviously not knowing he was my brother and teasing me), and I doubled over with laughter. That’s become a perennial in-joke for my family.
Legendary Saturday Night Live comedian, Gilda Radner, who died from ovarian cancer, wrote, “Cancer is probably the unfunniest thing in the world, but I’m a comedian, and even cancer couldn’t stop me from seeing the humor in what I went through.” Living with cancer’s late effects is also unfunny, but the humor is there, too, and I continue to look for it.