Disability Is Not a Punchline for a Joke

I am fluent in sarcasm. I really enjoy “dad jokes” and a good pun can produce a snort from me if delivered correctly. I once loved comedy, but since becoming a parent to a child with a disability, comedy is, unfortunately, not nearly as entertaining.

Imagine this: it’s your first night away from your family since having your fourth child (including two under 2) you really need a break. You head out for a ladies’ night with good friends and sit down to enjoy a night of entertainment. Three jokes in and the “short bus” makes its entrance. You make your way to the bathroom and proceed to have a cry. You wait until the end of that “comedian’s” set and make your way back to the table. You can’t find the right words to explain your feelings to your friends, and you are ready to write off comedy all together and call it a night.

I realized for the first time that night that although I believed and claimed not much had changed since having a child with Down syndrome, my world really would never be the same. Same view, different lenses.

About a year later, I found myself listening to a keynote from a “comedian” at a conference I was attending. As soon as Rob Snow was introduced, my stomach dropped and I began to prepare myself for the “humor” that was on the way. By the time he was finished, I was in tears and writing a note of thanks. He made us laugh and was funny, but without disability or people with disabilities as a punch line. I began to think I just may be able to laugh again.

Now don’t get me wrong, I had surely told or laughed at “short bus” jokes before; I was not excempt. But something deeply changes in your psyche when you have a child with a disability. Along with every joke, you imagine the room laughing right at your child. And as any mother can attest, that is not going to happen on our watch.

I know the jokes and words aren’t really about or directed at my child, but they are certainly not harmless. I don’t expect everyone to understand this — heck, I didn’t really get it until that night out. But my hope is that you might get a glimpse into my world, when a word suddenly becomes so much more.

As a parent, you work to ensure your child has everything they need to be healthy and successful. As a parent of a child with additional needs, you put in lots of extra hours researching, in therapies and medical appointments just to be sure you give that child all you can to help support their growth and development. They make gains and reach goals.

Then someone, somewhere, makes your child an easy punchline.

And you feel the wind knocked out of you as if you’ve been shoved to the ground. But then, you take a deep breath, brush yourself off and get up with even more desire to do right by your kid — for your kid.

I am still quite new into this journey, but several times a year for the last five there is some “public figure” or “celebrity” acting badly and demeaning disability and those with disabilities for entertainment.

How does this impact my life? I really try not to let it, but it is really disheartening to see people you know like or share these “jokes.” It feels like another punch to the gut. It feels like they truly don’t understand how I feel or what my life looks like each day. It widens the gap for a typical future for my child.

And, dammit, it makes it harder to escape into a TV show or movie, especially for those days when we really need to unwind and have a good laugh.

It also adds another challenge, like in planning for our annual Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network retreat. We work to provide a Mom’s Night Out event each year, and last year we were thrilled to have a local connection to a comic that would keep it clean and provide some great laughs not at the expense of disability. While researching this year, I found several self-proclaimed “clean comics” and settled in to listen. I only lasted four minutes into the first set. This clean comedian took aim at a former reality star and described her as looking like a famous actress, “Well, if (that actress) had Down syndrome.” She laughed. The crowd laughed. Four minutes in.

Heavy sigh.

Most days are not noteworthy, but others feel like an uphill battle against the world. For me, for my children and for us all.

But if there is one thing I have learned so far, parents are stronger and more resilient than I ever knew; we have the ultimate motivation within our children. We are making a difference for them, just like the parents did before us and the ones coming along after.

We will take these words to heart, share our thoughts and peacefully protest and petition, but we will not stay quiet. We will educate and inform for new families and live our lives; one step up that hill at a time.

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