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Why I Have a Sense of Humor About My Disability

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Growing up with any disability from birth can be a challenge and present its own unique experiences. I have spina bifida, a condition where a person is born with an underdeveloped and exposed spinal cord. It can range from very mild to very severe, and it seldom affects two people in the exact same way. I am able to walk, but I sort of look like a drunken penguin if I’m not using my wheelchair. My sister and one of her friends still occasionally enjoy calling me Howard the Duck. While any disability is to be taken seriously, I have learned that it is also healthy to have a sense of humor about things, and just go with it.

There are two funny experiences from my childhood that still make me laugh. The first occurred when I was 8 and in the hospital for something to do with my feet, but I can’t honestly recall what. That’s a fun little side effect of frequent doctor visits and hospital stays — sometimes you forget what you were in for. Anyway, I had banded together with an older kid because he and I were the only patients in the unit at that time. One day, while talking in his room, he was randomly fiddling with his bed phone and we suddenly heard the distinct static-like “ksssssh” sound over the intercom. After staring at each other for a few seconds, we realized we had accidentally hacked in to the hospital paging system. We gave it a few more tries and were amazingly able to get back in after figuring out what to push. Not our brightest moment for sure, but when you are that bored, even bad ideas start to look like a lot of fun. We spent close to an hour paging people to random areas of the hospital and quickly hanging up. Hospital staff were eventually able to figure out the culprits, and we of course got a good talking to, but it’s still a fond memory. Major props to the hospital staff for never ratting us out to our parents on that one!

The second is from the summer between 8th and 9th grade. I was riding my bike across a road in a rainstorm. I thought I had more room to get across the road, but ended up getting smoked by a Mazda that was passing by. My bike was totaled, but I remained relatively unharmed aside from some missing elbow skin. Due to the legendary Minnesota Nice, the lady who hit me was even kind enough to give me a ride home. My mom still feels bad about not believing me when I told her what had happened, because I was basically fine. The funny part came later in the afternoon when a local cop showed up at the door. They had received a call from a witness saying, “The ‘crippled’ kid in town got hit by a car and then they all disappeared!” Unbeknownst to myself or anyone else, the police had been frantically searching the town for me and finally spotted my bike by the garage. The officer wouldn’t leave until talking with me, and of course, when he saw me walking (penguin alert!) he got very upset. He calmed down when he spoke to my dad and we assured him that was unrelated. It still makes me smile.

Adulthood has continued to bring some hilarious moments. Years ago, after a late shift at work, I went out to meet some people for a birthday. I didn’t drink that night and left early. As I was driving away, I got pulled over by an officer who’d seen me leaving the bar. When I explained I was sober, he asked if I could get out and walk in a straight line for him, and then I could go. I explained that, “Well, no, actually I can’t.” When he inquired further, I pulled up my pant leg and showed him my leg brace. He stared at my leg for a minute as his face got red. Then he turned to me and said, “OK, you have a nice day.” Then he hurried to his car and sped away before I could even turn my truck back on. Apparently I’d embarrassed him, but it gave me a good chuckle.

Drunk people are often a great source of awkward or funny moments, because, well, alcohol. I was out one night with one of my good friends. We had just sat down with our drinks and a college girl came stumbling up to us. We all engaged in typical bar chatter for a few minutes, before she started staring at me, then at my chair, and finally coming back to me. I could see my friend grinning but tried to ignore him. Finally, the drunk girl looked at me and said, “How long have you been a paralegal?” Clearly she was going for paraplegic, but botched it. I sat there stunned for a second, and then almost fell over backwards in my chair from trying to contain my laughter while my buddy roared so loud that half of the place stopped to stare at us. I explained my situation, and then she mercifully left us alone.

Another moment that sticks clearly in my memory is from years ago, when my oldest friend and I took a road trip to Colorado and Utah. We had gone to the Denver Zoo one afternoon on a whim, and I paid my admission first. After I got my change, she waved my friend through and said, “And your helper gets in for free!” We both stared at her blankly, realizing her unfortunate assumption. After a few seconds, I quickly tossed my backpack to him, hoping he’d play along, and said “Thanks!” We went in before anyone could question us. He and I had a great afternoon spying on animals and eating over-priced food, and anytime a zoo employee passed we’d jokingly make it look like he was helping me with something.

As I said, disabilities are certainly serious and can be a great source of worry, sadness, pain, and a general “Why me?” feeling at times. But at the same time, they make me and countless others who we are. I could probably fill a novel with the random experiences I’ve had. Everyone out there has their own funny stories, and they should be celebrated and embraced as just a part of the experience. It’s OK to laugh.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: April 2, 2016
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