Humour can be effective teaching tool to build positive social relationships, if used wisely. However, there is little research on the use of humour in the classroom (Lovorn 2015), although there are studies on the impact of humour on marginalised groups such as ethnic minorities and people with disability. It should also be noted that humour can increase social inequality in the classroom (Praag, Stevens & Houtte 2017). As every school has students with disabilities, I believe it is pertinent to consider the role of humour and disability. I’m also keen to explore this area after viewing social media accounts of students with disability receiving ‘humour’ awards at assembly for ‘being the most annoying student’ and the student ‘most likely to become lost’. In both these instances parents complained to the schools involved about their child being humiliated in front of the school, and in one case the school issued a public apology. In both cases, the schools involved suffered significant reputational damage. Despite these events, some teachers expressed a desire for these awards to continue, with one describing them as a way of ‘building resilience’. Another teacher argued that students with disability should be treated the same as students who do not have disability, and I agree. She argued that if students with disability miss out on these ‘awards’, it is a form of discrimination. This is where I do not agree and I will explain why.
Students with disability are a marginalised group who are more likely to experience laughter directed at them than the rest of the population (Shakespeare 1999). This laughter can have a damaging effect. Yet, people employing humour against students with disability often claim that this type of humour is acceptable (Billig 2005), with some even claiming the person with disability receives benefit from this humour. One of the biggest issues with the ‘humour’ awards are the qualities mentioned in the award, such as ‘annoying’ or becoming ‘lost’, are attributable to a student’s disability and are a core part of the student’s identity. Hence, these ‘awards’ are a personal attack on their value as a human and provides permission for the dominant group to laugh at the disabled ‘other’. While humour is regularly used by people with disability, about disability, Tom Shakespeare (1999), a disabled academic, states
‘By laughing at ourselves, we establish a rapport which enables communication to overcome stigma. Rather than being the ‘Other’, about whom jokes are made, the disabled person establishes themselves as part of the group, and their impairment enters that stock of topics which are permissible for humorous interaction between friends.”
However, in this situation non-disabled teachers are giving ‘awards’ to students, and there is a significant power imbalance between the two. I decided to check with a group of adults with disability and disability scholars regarding their thoughts of the ‘humour awards’ and these are some comments I received:
‘In the fifth grade my teacher openly shared with the class that he wanted to give me the “Most Annoying” or even another “A” word, but had instead chosen “Avid Reader”. The class erupted into laughter and clapped when he said “most annoying” and a few students yelled “she IS annoying”. I have ADHD and struggled often in class to pay attention and put my library book down. I have never forgotten that experience of hurt and shame and I am 40′.
‘I got the ‘most gullible’ award as a kid because I took things too literally because of my ASD. I had been trying to work on it but that award just sucked out my desire to even make an effort.’
“I would have been CRUSHED to get a “most annoying” award as a child. I dealt with a lot of bullying…I had some semblance of safety with certain teachers but bullying wasn’t treated seriously, I was told just to ignore them, which didn’t work. Big no, no on anything remotely negative toward disabled kids’.
‘Awards should be positive and anything else like “most annoying” or “most messy” is sanctioned bullying’.
‘Do they [teachers] get the award for being the bully?’
‘These awards hurt all children.’
‘My personal philosophy is that if you can’t see at least positive quality in each student you teach, then you need to reflect on what you are doing and change something.’
‘Not sure “most annoying” is a good award for any kid, let alone one with an invisible disability such as ADHD or ASD or OCD…Not unless you want to ensure that the kid grows into an anxious , excessively self-conscious adult with low self-esteem who has trouble advocating for him/herself.’
‘I am so worried about teachers’.
‘Being cruel is not funny.’
‘This is ableist abuse’.
‘Sometimes a student may seem to laugh or play along on the outside because they know they are supposed to, but on the inside they feel crushed and insecure.’
The comments above reflect the prevailing view from people with lived experience of disability that the ‘humour’ awards are inappropriate and a form of violence against a vulnerable group of children. These ‘awards’ could have long-term damaging effects for students with disability. However, it can also be harmful for students without disability who see humour utilised as a vehicle to say insensitive comments to their peers with disability, and are encouraged to view all behaviour through a neurotypical lens. With the rise of hate crimes against minority groups such as those with disability, I believe teachers need to tread cautiously before using humour to ensure it has positive, rather than negative outcomes. Humour to one person can be ridicule to another. Personally I believe the ‘humour’ awards should be discontinued immediately and any schools utilising this type of ‘humour’ should engage in disability training to ensure their schools are welcoming for everyone, including students with disability. And how should awards be given? This positive story was shared with me:
‘I’m a powered wheelchair user and got my ‘most experienced driver’ in my mainstream primary school. But that award was created in direct consultation with me and as a response to the fact that traditional sporting awards were inaccessible at that time.’
This award was constructive and encouraging and created in consultation with the student to ensure she didn’t experience shame or humiliation. It was a positive experience which she looks back on with fond memories. So, I will end with the words of one of the people I interviewed for this blog, ‘In a world where we can be anything, be kind.‘