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Robert Slayton

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Having a Sense of Humor About Disability

Posted: 04/08/11 05:50 PM ET

The standard stereotype of the disabled is that we're all angry. Of course, we have to be mad at life, because of what it's done to us. In movies, in books, the image presented over and over again is of someone who ranges from perpetual rage to a more modest yet constant state of simply being a curmudgeon.

After that comes what I refer to as the "Helen Keller" model. If you're disabled, you are bound to be heroic. It goes without saying that you must be noble and have done incredible things to overcome your ailment, in order to become what you are today. It helps even more if you are a motivational figure, an inspiration to others. No one else could have done what you do.

As someone in a wheelchair, let me give you the inside scoop. Are you ready for this incredible news?

We're normal. We laugh, we are employed, we have kids, our marriages are successful (or not -- just like everyone else). We play sports, and at times don't want to play sports and prefer to watch old movies on television. We like ice cream and we eat hamburgers.

And the second image? Here's what most of us know. While the original adjustment was a struggle, it was not impossible. The vast majority of you, if you had to, could do the same thing. We're not wishing this on anybody, and for some the story of what they had to overcome really is the stuff of great literature. But for me and so many others, after a painful adjustment, I'm living a regular life, and enjoying it.

So like all well-balanced people, we can laugh at ourselves. Except now we have some help with that. New Mobility, the best magazine for folks in wheelchairs, just did a terrific collection of April Fools stories. As in all good humor, what makes it so funny is how close to the truth it is.

In one revelation, for example, the headline reads, "Wheelchair Speaker Not Motivational." Goofing on standard self-help gurus, it begins, "Motivational speaker John Simpson, 34, was booed off the stage at the MegaUltra Corp. annual conference when he admitted that, despite having broken his neck at age 23, he's never actually done anything remotely interesting." Simpson pointed out, "Well, I bowl on my Wii and I hang out at the mall, so it's not like I don't have a life."

Another piece mocks corrupt members of the disabled community: "Over five San Francisco wheelchair users who make their living by suing inaccessible restaurants gathered outside the headquarters of Chuckles Fine Dining to protest the chain's exceptional commitment to the Americans with Disabilities Act. 'This is a travesty,' lamented activist Yorick Ponzi. 'How are we supposed to make a living when big corporations like this suddenly start taking the law seriously?'"

Highlighting, but having fun with, a totally different form of malfeasance, another article discussed "a shocking turn of events." In this expose, "Marlie Mavins, a woman with multiple sclerosis from Morley, Mo., reports that her attendant showed up to work on time four days in a row. 'And he looked and smelled so nice!' exclaims Mavins, 53".

Spoofing the notion that we're all some kind of heroes, one piece reported, "Quad Refuses to Climb Mountain, Rents Netflix Instead."

Thus, believe it or not, the disabled do have a sense of humor. We can enjoy a joke, even one aimed at ourselves. Which is more than you can say for most corporate heads, or most politicians.