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Why Sssooo Ssserious: The Power of Laughter

Ian Hickey, Lesley Kodom-Baah, Nisar Bostan and Patrick Campbell | 28.07.2016

The BSA National Conference in Manchester is coming up fast and with that workshop organisers like us are making our presentations and talks to (hopefully) entertain, intrigue and inspire attendees. Our first “Why Sssooo Ssserious” workshop at the London Open Day was initially met with a few odd looks and comments, so we thought it would be good to explain the thoughts behind it for its upcoming sequel in Manchester.

Laughter is powerful. Jokes in society about stammering that peddle prejudiced, negative views are all too common. These jokes undoubtedly play a significant role in creating and maintaining the large amount of public stigma surrounding stammering as well as assisting the development of internalised stigma. Fortunately, this common experience has united the stammering community to crusade against laughing at stammering, from the playground to the television.

The chosen tag-line at the time though “stammering is no joke” seems to too black and white.

People who stammers’ often almost uniformly negative experience of jokes about stammering can cloud their vision to this potential of positive jokes about stammering that can break rather than make stammering stereotypes.

In our experience, the laughs come easy and acceptance follows when you mention stammering in a humorous light

  • Ian, for instance, often opens his presentations with “I have a stammer and will probably have some long blocks. If you just bear with me, I’ll try and have you out by Christmas”. It immediately puts both himself and the audience at ease. The elephant in the room is outed straight away and they know it’s something that can be acknowledged… even joked about.
  • Nisar has found that using humour allows him to set the tone for how we are received rather than allowing the tone to be dictated by a third-party at the expense of our predicament. He has been inspired by Katherine Preston with her positive and occasionally humorous approach to stammering. Nisar finds himself quipping and playing with his stammer during prolongations as an antidote to constantly bogging himself down under the self-inflicted pressure of his negative thoughts and ideas about stammering.
  • Lesley has found, like Ian, using humour when talking about her stammering experiences makes advertising easier as it not only puts her at ease but the listener too. It gives the listener the opportunity to engage in a positive conversation about stammering.
  • And, Patrick once managed to win a local round of the Toastmasters Humorous Speech Contest with a speech entitled “H-H-Hilarious”.

More widely, the power of laughter has been noticed in other stigmatised disabilities as well. Indeed, a positive disability comedy movement has blossomed over the past 10 years.

One great example is Jess Thom, an activist using humour in Tourette’s. She founded the site TouretteHero, which celebrates the humour and creativity of Tourette’s. She says:

“[We use humour about Tourette’s] to challenge the assumptions about the condition and about disability more generally. To reduce fear of difference, biscuit, and help everyone feel more comfortable talking about it, Biscuit, because it is crucial the voices of disabled people are heard to counteract the rhetoric that is often used about disability. In my experience, humour plays an important role in cutting through fear and helping people feel at ease with difference. Laughing matters”

There are already several stand-up comedians who stammer: Jaik Campbell, Nina G, Chris Douce, or Drew Lynch to name but a few. We even made a show reel of them to show at the workshop – until the Wi-Fi failed. They are all great to watch on YouTube.

The massive potential of positive jokes about stammering and disability is only beginning to be realised. We hope our workshops can encourage this trend to continue.