Unlike anyone else I know, I live in a world of very conflicting points of view.
The comedian side of me knows how hard it is to make an audience laugh. If you want to kill the humor, try to make comedians behave like politicians–- going over every word they say to the point where nothing ever feels off-the-cuff. My stand-up idols were always the most shocking, in-your-face comics– George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison.
The father-of-a-child-with-special-needs side of me, on the other hand, knows how hurtful words can be. Yeah, I know that some of you think they’re just words and people need to get past them, but it just doesn’t work that way for many of us. So what is a person like me, who lives in both of these worlds, supposed to do? It took me awhile, but here’s where I came down on the subject.
My style is not to tell someone not to say something I might not like. Go ahead, I’m not the comedy police. What I am going to do is be as in-your-face and irreverent as I’ve always been, but sell my viewpoints while I’m doing it. Most people in the special needs community have to be careful about how they go about pushing their agenda, as they could lose their jobs in the politically correct world in which they work. I’m a comedian. You know, the last place (supposedly) where true freedom of speech lives. It’s a bit of a tightrope, but I want to bring both of these worlds together in all the creative endeavors I attempt.
Ok, enough with the context, let’s get into why I offered all this up today. It saddens me how many phrases are out there that are demeaning to people with special needs. The newest one I’ve heard over the past year is “Photo Wrecker.” The idea behind this gem is that a person with some type of disability would ruin your family photo. Hilarious, right?
To me this is people at their most superficial: “Let’s make a joke at the one group that can’t defend itself.” I started doing the Happy Monday videos with Maddie so people who have little to no contact with someone like my daughter could feel some of the charm that emanates from her. I wanted people to realize that, sure, she carries herself differently than most, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t experience all the same emotions that you do. It’s not an easy life for her, but on a few levels she surpasses most of us typically-developed people.
What inspired me to write this piece today was something I read in USA Today. In the article by Liz Szabo, this was the part that most blew me away.
Nearly 99 percent of people with Down syndrome say they’re happy with their lives, and 96 percent they like how they look, the survey found. Just think about that.
In that same survey, 88 percent of siblings say their brother or sister has made them better people.
I’m guessing those reading this are not at that same level of satisfaction with their lives and their personal appearance. I know I don’t feel even close to that level. It does my heart a lot of good to read the stats about how siblings feel. I can share that Madeline has made me a better person– by a 100 percent. And while these stats are great to read, I’m not going to pretend for a minute that life with a child with special needs isn’t incredibly difficult. It’s such a huge rollercoaster of a life.
So here I sit as a comedian.
I will defend your right to say what you want onstage, as much as I don’t like it. And so I hope you will defend my right to say what I want onstage as well– like how it’s lazy and weak to make fun of people with developmental disabilities. I hope you’ll defend my right to tell you to your face, ‘Don’t you feel like a big adult, making fun of people who can’t defend themselves?’ I hope you’ll defend my right to tell you I lose respect for you every time I hear these type of words come out of your mouth.
I think the world stand-up means more than just being upright. It means standing up to people in society that need to be taken down a notch– like the celebrities and politicians who don’t deserve the money and power they inhabit. I guess I don’t believe making jokes about people that can’t defend themselves fits that same criteria. But if you are someone who’s unable to work a little harder to find a more challenging topic, go ahead and hit the easy target. You know, the target that isn’t capable of coming back at you. I know you think you’re being edgy, but the real truth is it’s the safest comedy possible, as there’s little danger anyone is going to put you on the spot. Well, almost no one. If I happen to be there, I just ask for you not to flinch when I call you out for your laziness and lack of heart.
I’m not telling you my daughter needs to be beautiful to you. Beauty is subjective. But if you think for a minute she has ever wrecked a photo in my eyes, you are totally out of your mind.