While using a walker, a Colorado Springs resident approached his local comedy club stage. The man's mobility device catapulted as he fell on the stage. There was obvious tension in the audience. Following this mishap, how could the audience possibly laugh at this comedian's jokes?
It was 1991, the first time I had the pleasure of seeing standup comedian Chris Fonseca's live routine. 1991 was also the year after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law.
Chris, who disclosed that he had cerebral palsy, informed the audience that his grandfather also had a disability. Grandpa informed Fonseca how much easier the lives of people with disabilities had become over the years. When Grandpa was a child, there were no wheelchairs. Therefore, Grandpa had to be "dragged to school".
The initial tension following Chris' fall quickly dissipated. Laughter filled the venue.
In addition to having a disability, Fonseca informed the audience that he was also Hispanic. According to Chris, if he were a woman, he could be hired for any government job.
Fonseca is one of a growing number of comics who educate people about disabilities through humor. Well known standup comedian Alex Valdez is blind. Alex teaches his audiences that people with disabilities use the same phrases as people who do not have disabilities.
When Valdez arrives on stage, he greets the "good looking crowd" with "Long time no see". Why doesn't Alex, like other entertainers who are blind, wear sunglasses? People who are deaf don't wear ear muffs.
Well-meaning people frequently ask Valdez if he would like to see. Without hesitation, Alex replies, "No." Why? It would ruin his act.
Kathy Buckley, who is deaf, explains that though she educates while entertaining, making people laugh is her job. Kathy hasn't had a date in 3 1/2 years. Why? She can't hear the phone ring.
Comedienne Geri Jewell emphasizes that all comics have a gimmick. Because Geri lives with cerebral palsy every day, some of her material focuses on her disability.
Unlike audiences, Jewell states that comedy club owners do not focus on disabilities. Club owners simply care about whether a comic is funny. Comics do not succeed if they are not funny.
According to Geri, comedy club owners focus on what comics with disabilities can do, rather than what they can't do. Therefore, Jewell feels that comics with disabilities have equal opportunities to make audiences laugh.
Comics Fonseca, Valdez, Buckley, Jewell, J.D. England and Brett Leake are featured in the hour long 1994 documentary "Look Who's Laughing". England and Leake disclose that they have muscular dystrophy.
Other successful comics who educate through laughter include "Last Comic Standing" winner Denverite Josh Blue, who has cerebral palsy, and Hollywood Improv comedy competition winner, Native American Michael Beers of Missoula, MT, who has Vater Syndrome.
Northern California troupe "Comedians with Disabilities Act" features Michael O'Connell, who has muscular dystrophy, Steve Danner, who is a little person, Eric Mee, who is blind and Nina G., who has a speech disability.
Standup comics who disclose disabilities perform to sold out audiences throughout America. Comics with disabilities have been endorsed by celebrities and major corporations, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, late night hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman, IBM and Toyota Motor Company. As the live and televised appearances of comics with disabilities increases, so does equal opportunity laughter in America.
Over the past four decades, Disability Educator and Sign Language Instructor Cindy Powell has advised businesses, employers, government agencies and nonprofits about best practices with people with disabilities.
Cindy provides customized training on the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), tax incentives and other helpful topics, such as disability etiquette and service animals. Ms. Powell also provides customized sign language training.
Cindy has served on local, state and national disability organization Boards of Directors. Ms. Powell was recipient of International Association of Workforce Professionals' 2006 Services to Specialized Populations award. Cindy’s disability articles appear in print and online.
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