Wheelchairs and other road-runners
I thought the only thing funnier than P-Noy’s joke in New Zealand was the somber reactions of some of us to it. Though those reactions came for the most part from Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s camp, it was not confined to it.
Of course you expect Ferdinand Topacio, Arroyo’s lawyer, to say the joke gives the world the impression that “we ridicule the sick.” And of course you expect Danilo Suarez to say it is “ungentlemanly and unbecoming, insensitive to an ailing grandmother and disrespectful of a former head of state.” But you do not expect other people to propose that P-Noy take a psychological test or look to the day when he would land on a wheelchair. Nor do you expect a PWD (person with disability) group to say: “Dear Mr. President, we are really offended. Who wants to be wheelchair-bound anyway? Leave the wisecracks and jokes to Vice Ganda. Start acting and being president for once.”
At least I didn’t. What raised their hackles was P-Noy saying before a gathering of Filipinos: “There are corrupt people back home who drive fancy and expensive cars. And yet when they want to escape, they choose to use a wheelchair.”
The only reason I did not find it hilarious was that I had heard it before—when I did find it hilarious. It packs a lot more punch in Tagalog: “Sa Pilipinas, ’yung mga corrupt kapag nagnanakaw gumagamit ng Ferrari, kapag tumatakas gumagamit ng wheelchair.” But even with the way P-Noy delivered it in English, you’d be at pains to find anything disagreeable with it—unless you are either prissy or prickly. Or just want to find fault with P-Noy. The joke does not poke fun at people in wheelchairs, it pokes fun at the people who make fun of them. Or put more directly, it doesn’t poke fun at the wheelchair-bound, it pokes fun at the (ought-to-be) jail-bound.
I don’t know if this is just a thing that got lost in the translation or some people have lost their sense of humor. I myself cannot imagine that PWDs, or specifically people in wheelchairs, take such a grim, or paranoid, view of the world they’ll imagine that any joke that involves wheelchairs, whatever the context, naturally disparages them. I have some wheelchair-bound friends who have found this joke laugh-out-loud funny.
The joke is on the corrupt that are in the pink of health one day and stricken with disease the next, the interval marked by their falling from power and facing prosecution. Or the joke is on the “nagwi-wheelchair-wheelchair-an,” not on the truly wheelchair-bound. Which is a very Pinoy pastime. Lest we forget, P-Noy’s audience for this wisecrack was a gathering of Pinoys.
The crack may be wise at that, given that life has just imitated wisecrack. Last week, Arroyo and son Dato filed a bill that would turn joke into reality. Their bill calls for “the grant of a medical parole” on very sick inmates “for humanitarian considerations,” the determination of “very sick” to come from a licensed government doctor. While seemingly enlightened, given that quite a number of prisoners have died from untreated illnesses, it is in fact merely self-serving. And widens the discrimination: Poor prisoners will continue to die at the same rate while rich ones, like one of the authors of the bill, will get a boost at being freed. You’re rich, you can always find a doctor, not least a licensed government one, who will testify that the wheelchair you’re using in prison is real and the miracle of the cure you experienced upon being sprung is just as so.
But having said this, I must say as well that I’m glad that we’ve become a little more sensitive about blindsiding PWDs in putting people down, however it misses the point in this case. I said so the last time the Downs Syndrome Association of the Philippines took Miriam Santiago to task for calling her enemies “mongoloids.” A thing she apologized for, though the real joke there, and quite a hilarious one, was that Miriam put on airs of being literate and said she was just quoting from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel called “Confederacy of Dunces.” The character she was quoting, in fact, which she would have known if she had read it, was a misogynist, miserable and misery-inflicting antihero who was very much like—her!
Just as well, over in the United States, the misogynist, miserable and misery-inflicting provocateur, Ann Coulter, just got the biggest putdown of her life when she was put down by a Special Olympics athlete who suffered from Downs Syndrome after she called Barack Obama a “retard.” It was as perfect a letter as you could get, the product of quite literally much thought, as the writer, John Franklin Stephens, himself admitted that people like him took a little longer to think things through. His opening line brought out the fineness of his sensibility: “I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.”
Rise above pettiness he did, ending his letter by saying it came from the heart and from “a friend you haven’t met yet.” The whole letter was a masterpiece, and Americans stood up to applaud.
But we could do too with having a bit of perspective, or a sense of proportion, on things. We could do with not being entirely humorless. Hell, we could do with being a little more discriminating and know when a joke is a joke and when it is not. To repeat, the wheelchair joke is a joke, the others are not. The wheelchair joke makes fun of people who make fun of those in wheelchairs. The others make fun of those on them. The difference is basic. In a bad joke, the joker gets to have the last laugh.
In a good one, the person in the wheelchair does.
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