The Value of Humor with Disability

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"Thank you; you’re the greatest audience I have never seen!" I use this line in every magic show, which illustrates my philosophy of using humor to cope with, and even embrace my disabilities. My name is Jeffrey Smith but to my audience I am known as Amazing Jeffo, a magician who happens to be blind. I make a living as a magician entertaining private, corporate and civic groups. I do motivational speaking to parent groups who have children with disabilities and speak to companies about the benefits of hiring people with disabilities. I believe humor is a conduit that connects me to my audience and helps overcome misperceptions about the capability of people with disabilities. Often magic is the vehicle I use to express humor. Some might ask, "What’s so funny about someone with crippled fingers, resulting from rheumatoid arthritis, performing sleight of hand?" Or, "What’s so amusing about a motivational speaker coming from a history of severe stuttering?" And, "Is it a laughing matter that a magician is blind?" Quite to the contrary, poking fun at life’s challenges minimizes their stressful effects and reminds me and others there is still much laughter and enjoyment in each day. Moreover, research shows the positive influence of laughter on our health and longevity.

Another line I use in my shows is, "Don’t you just hate it when you can’t find something around the house because someone has moved it two inches to the left or right!" Self-directed humor helps others realize the importance of laughing at one’s self and that disability is not a tragedy. It is true that we cannot control our circumstances but we can choose how we react to them. All circumstances have inherent negatives and positives.

People can be uncomfortable around persons with disabilities for several reasons. One reason may be that their own vulnerability is exposed when they see someone who is blind, using a wheel chair or having difficulty speaking. Another reason for discomfort in the presence of someone with a disability may be a result of how they perceive or define ability. Their misperception may conclude people with disabilities are less able to contribute to society in meaningful ways. People with disabilities are just as able as non-disabled people but merely express their ability in different ways.

I use humor as a teaching tool to gently correct these negative, stereo-typical attitudes. When my wife and I are dining out, it is not uncommon for the food server to look at me and ask my wife, Devon, "What does he want?", or, "Is he done?" My wife, who knows I am capable for speaking for myself, shrugs and says, "I don’t know; why don’t you ask him?" This gives me an opening to jump in, "I could ask him for you and get back to you, if that’s o.k.?" The food server will typically smile and realize her incorrect assumption regarding my capability. Humor acknowledges the level of awkwardness by some, and tears down barriers. It promotes real communication.

Humor can also serve as a coping mechanism. You have to laugh and move on; it’s a healthy outlet for frustration. Humor is essential with ulcerative colitis, which is a disease I lived with throughout my childhood and resulted in my being the second youngest in medical history to receive an illeostomy at age seven. The night before the illeostomy surgery the team of doctors came to my room and showed me the bag I’d be wearing when I awoke from surgery. They also suggested that some illeostomy patients even name their stoma to help feel more comfortable with having one. The stoma is the end of the intestines that protrudes through the stomach wall and fits into the bag for purposes of elimination. "So," they said, "think about what you’d like to name it." It was just a second before I blurted, "How about naming it Cyclops?" "Why Cyclops?" they asked. I answered, "Because Cyclops has only one eye!"

Regardless of disability each of us faces challenges. I have found that laughing at my inevitable miscues is most helpful in dealing with the everyday events of life. I use a white cane that enables me to navigate independently. As a teenager at a mobility training session, I convinced my instructor that we should take a break and stop for a beer. Since I hadn’t had anything to eat that day, combined with the fact I was only about 100 pounds at the time, the beer really disoriented me, but I wasn’t about to admit it. My assignment was to practice crossing one of the busiest street intersections in Minneapolis. The light turned green to go and I started off on a straight line until a semi truck on my right began revving his engine in order to get off to a fast start when the light changed. With every rev of his engine, I began unconsciously veering more and more to my left until I missed the entire corner of the curb on the far side. I was walking parallel to the sidewalk amid honking traffic and irate motorists. Blissfully unaware in my altered state I was thinking, "Wow! This has to be the widest street I’ve ever crossed!" Unknowingly I was walking up the middle of the street toward the next intersection. Finally, my mobility instructor caught up to me and explained why nothing I was hearing made sense.

I want to close with one other illustration of my seeing humor in everyday circumstances.

"Honey, I’ll be right there," I said as I fumbled around in the birthday card section at a local card shop. Sometimes as a blind person I get frustrated with other people picking out my greeting cards, so I thought my wife would think it very romantic if I picked out a birthday card all by myself. She was charmed with my idea. So there I was, feeling around the birthday card section and not getting anywhere. Since all the cards "looked" the same to me, I just grabbed one. It was an unusually shaped card and I had difficulty finding its matching envelope; so I took an envelope that was handy. I figured even if the card had to be folded an extra time or two, Devon would appreciate the thought just the same. I was really quite proud of myself and thought of the possible opportunities that might come later that night as a result of my romantic gesture. I didn’t realize what I had done until when at home my clerical assistant had told me what card I had actually chosen. It turned out to be the display placard that directs people to the birthday card section. My intent was to buy her a card with a funny message on it. Well, this was as funny a message as I could ever have wanted. We folded it to be shaped like an actual greeting card and wrote a message on the inside, "I would like to share with you my unique love by giving you a most unique card." The funniest part of this whole story was the reaction of the store clerk. I had unintentionally presented the clerk with an unusual dilemma. I beamed with pride as I asked her, "Have you ever had a blind person in your store choose a greeting card all by himself?" With a confused voice she responded, "N-n-o. I-I-I can’t say we have!" In retrospect, I don’t know if her uncertainty about telling me of my mistake was to not embarrass me or general nervousness about interacting with a person who is blind. Regardless, when I asked how much I owed, she hesitated, and then I heard her turn the card over a couple of times and finally say, "I guess a couple of dollars." I thought it kind of strange that the price would not be clear to her. But it didn’t matter to me at the time because I knew in my naïve little way that I had just scored big points with my wife.

My humor comes naturally, growing out of a desperate need for attention and recognition, arising from a chronic stuttering condition now long overcome. The positive reaction I received from my humor gave me self-confidence which played a major factor in my eventually attaining fluent speech. Still a stutterer at my first magic show in 1990, I was messing up trick after trick. In my panic, I resorted to humor by blaming the audience for the tricks not working right. When the audience howled at my novel solution to the problem, I quickly realized that the point of all of this is not to fool people but to entertain and enlighten.

Despite the challenges in my life I have fun. I choose to dwell on my blessings rather than my challenges, and humor helps keep it all in perspective. A healthy dose of humor has proven as great a medicine to me as any prescription or treatment.

The Amazing Jeffo, a.k.a. Jeff Smith, performs 150 shows per year. To invite him to perform for your corporate, educational, religious or civic group, call 651-457-7300 or drop him an email at Jeffo@AmazingJeffo.com.

Call The Amazing Jeffo - Jeff Smith @ 651-457-7300