Printer Friendly

An exploration of the social functions of humor among college students in wheelchairs.

The purpose of this investigation is to explore the social functions of humor among a group of college students in wheelchairs. While researchers have studied humor across most social groupings including race, gender, age, ethnicity and religious affiliation, groups with physical disabilities have rarely been targeted as a population of interest (Cassell, 1985). As a consequence little is known about how humor, a key element in understanding group function, works among this population. From numerous studies it is apparent that groups develop an indigenous humor system which serves several important social functions. Koller (1988), for example, notes that humor can be used by groups to enhance social bonding, provide relief from stress, give expression to aggressive feeling, celebrate life, reinforce or undermine stereotyping, provide therapy or catharsis or shield us against outside attacks. Of interest here is the question of which functions might be operative in the humor network of college students with physical disabilities severe enough for them to use a wheelchair.

The analytical model of humor is adapted from the work of Martineau (1972). Its basic premise is that humor is a social mechanism with definite social functions and that it is a fundamental means of communication through which participants in a social system regularly convey information. The model includes a basic framework in which humor can be analyzed within a specific group or across different groups. Within this schema, there are four major variables which come into play. The first is the group that initiates the humor, the second is the audience to whom the humor is aimed and the third is the subject or butt of the humor (this may or may not be the same as the audience). The final variable is the evaluative element or the judgement of the humor (Martineau, 1972).

The initiator of the humor in this study is a sample of college students using wheelchairs. There are two audiences at whom their humor is directed: themselves (the in-group) and their non-handicapped peers (the out-group). Further, the data reveal examples of humor in which the out-group is the butt of the joke and some in which the in-group is the principal subject. In the evaluative phase we examine the content of the humor to determine its range of social functions.

Data Collection

The setting for the study was a state supported university located in the Northeast region of the United States. This school was of particular interest to us because of its comparatively large population of students with physical disabilities. As part of a larger study conducted under the auspices of the Office of Disabled Student Services at the University, the researchers were permitted to conduct telephone interviews with the entire population of one hundred and five students in wheelchairs.

The interviews began with an introduction and an explanation for the purpose of the research. This was followed by a request for a few minutes of their time and a guarantee that their anonymity would be protected at all times. The core of the interview included two basic questions: "Do people with disabilities make jokes about non-handicapped people?" and "Is there such a thing as inside humor among people with physical handicaps?" If respondents answered either question in the affirmative, they were asked to give some examples. All responses were recorded and later transcribed for analysis. This procedure yielded ninety-three usable responses.


In response to the question of whether students with disabilities made jokes about non-handicapped people, fifty-four confirmed that they did while thirty-one said that they did not. Another eight individuals hedged their response in such a way that it didn't fit either category. The question on the presence of an inside humor network among those in wheelchairs elicited an affirmative response from seventy-four with only thirteen contending that such a network does not exist. There were six responses that were too ambiguous to allow for categorization. The follow-up examples of humor contributed by those who responded affirmatively to either one or both of the interview questions provided the primary source of data for the study.

Thirty-nine interviewees offered illustrations of the kinds of humor that is directed at the non-handicapped while forty-eight gave examples of the types of inside humor that is characteristic of groups in wheelchairs. The researchers' analyses of the content of these examples provided the basis for the listing of the social functions of humor which follows.

A Categorization of the Social Functions of Humor Among Students in Wheelchairs

(1) Humor as a means of building in-group solidarity. One of the major functions of humor is to enhance group cohesion (Faulkner, 1987). According to Koller (1988), when groups laugh together they strengthen their own solidarity.

Whether the unit is a family, a sports team or a social club, most groups develop a system of inside humor which serves to bring the group members closer together and which helps define the boundary between themselves (the in-group) and others (the out-group). The fact that seventy-five individuals (eighty percent of the sample) confirmed the presence of such an inside humor network indicates that this group is no different from others in this regard.

The data provided by the interviewees revealed a pattern of negativity that related to some aspect of their disabling condition. One variation on this theme is the pervasive use of insider nicknames which, observes one respondent, "handicapped people can get away with so long as they are joking amongst one another." Getting more specific, this same student says he "can go up to my disabled friend and say 'hi crip' without them getting bent out of shape...because we both know where each is coming from." Thus one way in which this in-group appears to solidify itself is through the exchange of self-deprecating nicknames which outsiders are not permitted to use.

Further evidence of the negative tone, as seen from the point of view of an outsider, to the internal humor of this group is provided by an example in which a respondent says that "we kid all the time about people within the group about certain shortcomings we may have." Similarly, another points out that "there are physical problems (e.g., spasms) which need medicine or catheters and so on that we joke about." And another allows as how "it (humor) can get pretty morbid; a lot of our inside humor deals with some of the disgusting aspects of being disabled such as bowel and bladder problems."

While the negative focus of this humor may be puzzling to outsiders, it is consistent with the inside humor of other groups in that the humor revolves around the traits which distinguish it, the in-group, from all others. In the process of calling attention to its distinctive characteristics, the in-group strengthens its resolve in dealing with outside groups (Koller, 1988). Applied to this research, students in wheelchairs appear to be building a sense of cohesion through an inside humor system that revolves around the unique, though negative, aspects of their disabling condition.

Another way in which the inside humor of students in wheelchairs may foster cohesion is by creating a feeling of exclusivity among group members. Because their jokes are confined to the more technical or sensitive aspects of their condition, non-disabled students are defined out of the process. Several interviewees, for example, mentioned that they told jokes among themselves that others would not understand. In the words of one of these students "the physically disabled make jokes about their disability or paraphernalia associated with their disability that the non-handicapped are not likely to understand." Seen from the vantage point of insiders, this not only denies group membership to outsiders but it confers on them special status as a member of an exclusive in-group.

(2) Humor as a form of social aggression. Humor also functions as a form of aggression by one group against another. This humor is commonly believed to grow out of the aggressive impulses of a minority group and is perpetrated against a majority or controlling group. The humor itself can range from openly hostile to playful and amusing (La Fave, 1972).

The data collected for this study also reveal several forms of aggressive humor. First, there are examples which indicate that students in wheelchairs may act out some of their aggression by purposely embarrassing their non-handicapped peers. One respondent, for instance, noted that he and a friend regularly call each other "crips" in the presence of non-handicapped students to watch them squirm. This, he contends, is humorous and hurts no one.

According to three other interviewees, they also use humor to put down their non-disabled peers by putting them on. One such put-on that was reported to us plays off of the tendency of non-disabled students to lavish praise on people in wheelchairs for performing relatively simple tasks. It is not unusual, according to our source, for a non-disabled student to become excessive in their praise of a classmate with a disability who, say, does his or her own cooking. When this is done in the presence of a mixed group, those with disabilities are quick to pick up and build upon this line of exaggerated praise while cutting knowing glances at each other.

Another variety of aggressive in-group humor is directed at the out-group. In this class of humor non-disabled students become the in-group's target for nicknames and derisive commentary. The most typical nicknames for those not in wheelchairs are A.B.'s (able-bodied) and walkies which, notes one member of the sample, are "not really funny but are derogatory terms based on the fact that they can walk and a wheelchair person can't." Several respondents also observed that students in wheelchairs regularly make fun of the way "they" look and, especially, of the unique gait and pacing that characterize a person's walk.

There is also evidence to suggest that students in wheelchairs sometimes amuse themselves at the expense of the out-group through the use of disparaging remarks. One respondent, for example, said that a typical exchange between two students in wheelchairs on a crowded sidewalk might be a tongue-in-cheek question about "what are those people doing on our sidewalk?" An example of a more aggressive tack was supplied by another respondent who asserted that an impeded path can elicit a response such as "get out of my way or I'll kick you." And, according to another respondent, students with disabilities who are stared at may respond by saying something such as, "What are you looking at, haven't you ever seen anyone on wheels before."

Viewed as a piece the foregoing examples of aggressive humor form a loose mosaic. While the data presented here allow only a fragmentary interpretation, it is apparent that aggressive humor is a central component in the humor network of college students in wheelchairs. Further, it appears that this brand of humor gives vent to some hostile feelings engendered by their non-disabled peers and that it runs the gamut from gentle put-on's to overtly aggressive barbs.

(3) Humor as a means of turning tragedy into comedy. The primary function of this kind of humor is to build morale for groups who are enduring a severe hardship by joking about their predicament. For the oppressed it becomes a compensatory device which functions to minimize the fear and tragedy of a situation (Martineau, 1972). Commonly referred to as gallows humor, it is used by groups in dire circumstances to help them endure their fate by looking it in the eye and laughing at it. Evidence of this category of humor among the present sample is abundant. Of the forty-eight individuals who offered illustrations of inside humor, twenty-six gave examples that fit this categorical profile. These include derogatory references to their vans as "crip ships" and to themselves as "crips" and "quads." Several also said that they joked with one another about going jogging or taking a walk while others noted that a major source of humor revolved around bowel and bladder problems. While humor of this type may appear macabre to outsiders, it is a pervasive component in the humor network of this group of insiders. That it has functional merit is suggested by the words of two members of the sample, one of whom says that "we have to laugh at ourselves in order to make life easier" and, more poignantly, by another who states that "there has to be humor about our situation; to be serious is to be suicidal."

(4) Humor as a means of blurring group differences. Humor is often used by minorities to call attention to the fact that they are not much different from the majority culture (Koller, 1988). In the case of people in wheelchairs the only thing separating them from the majority group is their inability to walk. Thus, much of the humor in this category focuses on the precarious line that separates those who have the capacity to walk and those who don't. The humorous use of the nickname T.A.B.'s (temporarily able-bodied) to refer to their non-handicapped peers is an excellent example of how people who can't walk use humor as a constant reminder of how close we all are to being a member of their minority.

(5) Humor as an instrument of social reform. Like all minority groups, students in wheelchairs use humor to call attention to perceived social wrongs and to promote their pet causes. In the present sample illustrations of this type of humor were confined to the problems of negotiating their physical environment and were inspired by cartoons which were relayed secondhand to the interviewers. One student cited a cartoon in which a man in a wheelchair is sitting in front of a bathroom door with a step in front with a sign which reads "relief is only a step away." Another referred to one in which two students in wheelchairs are trying to negotiate a snowy sidewalk when one says to the other, "think snow tires." While these interpretations of cartoons lose something in the translation, they nevertheless illustrate the presence of this subset of humor among college students in wheelchairs. They also provide a glimpse of how they use humor to call attention to their plight and to prod those in control to do something about the problem.

(6) Humor as a means of diminishing group disadvantage. The essential idea here is that humor can be used to minimize the relative disadvantages associated with membership in a minority group (Koller, 1988). While there would appear to be no advantages to being in a wheelchair, several members of the sample offered examples of how they use humor to point up some of the incongruous advantages of their situation. These include humorous jibes about privileged parking spots and front row seats at sporting events and concerts. According to other members of the sample, they make jokes about never wearing out shoes and about always having a seat. While most of this humor is kept within the confines of the in-group, several noted that they occasionally tease their non-disabled peers about parking or seating problems and rub it in a bit about the van services, especially in winter, they enjoy. Interpreted liberally, these examples suggest that humor is used among students with disabilities to make lighter of their situation and to diminish group disadvantage.

In sum, these findings reveal that humor among students in wheelchairs serves several important social functions. While the categories of humor presented here parallel those found in other groups, there is one potentially important point of distinction. Whereas the tone of the humor of most in-groups is a mix of positive and negative, what was collected in this study is skewed toward the negative end of the scale. This is not to suggest that positive humor is not an integral part of the humor network of students in wheelchairs; only that it did not predominate in this investigation. A different approach might reveal a different pattern.

The negative tone, however, is consistent with the observations of Cassell (1985) who believes that while the humor of people with disabilities may function as a coping mechanism, it is outweighed by the negative subliminal effects that it has on the authenticity of the communication itself. The problem is that physical disfigurements are so disruptive to the normal flow of communication that humor is used to alleviate the tension that arises from their intrusion upon interpersonal exchanges. The resultant humor is thus used to disguise the real message of the communication which, in the case of people with physical handicaps, is often a combination of discomfort, confusion, insecurity and embarrassment. Interpreted in this way, disabled humor can be seen as a disparaging form of communication which might even serve to subvert real coping.

Further, the authors agree with Cassell's contention that as long as people with disabilities use humor to mask their true message, they can expect their communication to be tainted by disability-focused reactions. We also support his notion that there is a need to develop new learning-conditioning processes which are designed to foster person-accepting reactions (Cassell, 1985).

Finally, to end on a note of optimism, we believe that such processes are already a part of the communication style of those with disabilities. As evidence we point to the following function of humor.

(7) Humor as a means of removing the barriers between groups. This subset of humor is initiated by members of an in-group and serves to soften the boundary between themselves and the majority group (Koller, 1988). An example of how this kind of humor functions was provided by a woman who told us of how she likes to invite non-disabled students to ride in her wheelchair because it always provides them and her with a good laugh. Here is an instance in which humor is used by a member of a minority group to create a situation in which a member of the majority group is made to feel more comfortable. And, significantly, in the process of sharing a laugh they are also reducing the social distance between the two groups.

Harold J. Burbach, Associate Professor, Department of Educational Studies, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, Ruffner Hall, 405 Emmet Street, Charlottesville, VA 22903-2495.


Cassell, J. L. (1985). Disabled humor: origin and impact, Journal of Rehabilitation. 51 (4), 59-62 & 85.

Faulkner, J. E. (1987). Sociology Through Humor. St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Co.

Koller, M. R. (1988). Humor and Society: Explorations in the Sociology of Humor. Houston: Cap and Gown Press, Inc.

LaFave, L. (1972). Humor judgements as a function of reference groups and identification classes. In J. F. Goldstein & P. E. McGhee (Eds.), The Psychology of Humor. New York: Academic Press, 195-210.

Martineau, W. H. (1972). A Model of the social functions of humor. In J. H. Goldstein & P. E. McGhee (Eds.), The Psychology of Humor. New York: Academic Press, 101-125.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Rehabilitation Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Babbitt, Charles E.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Job-Finder's Workbook.
Next Article:Origins of conflicting professional and consumer images of blindness.

Related Articles
Substance abuse among the disabled....
Impact of physical disability and gender on personal space.
Feedback matters for getting the joke.
School home. (Feature).
Two professors walk into a classroom ...
Perceptions of children's attitudes towards peers with a severe physical disability.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters