Embracing disability: A Comic Relief

By Peter Hanlon

Picture: Jake Budge on stage

Rural Australia’s harshness is the stuff of legend, an environment where many a prospector, drover, missionary and misfit has found success in simple survival. For Laura Campbell, “a kid with a limp who was a bit overweight in a small country town”, salvation came with a laugh.

Campbell is 24 now and says she’s always had “different disability stuff going on”, initially rooted in a congenital hip disorder that’s about to be addressed by replacement surgery. Her daily grind was challenging enough even before the unrelated arrival, just before her 18th birthday, of the auto-immune disease Lupus. Its initial presentation was so uncommonly severe it almost killed her.

Comedy was her catharsis – and, she realised much later, a defence mechanism that she could use to make friends. “It became a tactic – when I was younger in country Australia, if I was making the joke I had the power, and someone wasn’t making the joke at me. If people were laughing with you, they weren’t making fun of you.”

At around 16 she had a lightning bolt moment watching an Adam Hills special on television. She was drawn to the Auslan interpreter who was helping the comedian’s work reach the living rooms of the hearing impaired. As Hills spoke about the funny moments that can come with having a prosthetic leg, Campbell realised she’d never seen a comic with a disability before – certainly not one who wore their impairment with such pride.

“He wasn’t the butt of the joke, he was educating the audience as to what it was like to have a prosthetic leg, but he also had this pride about him that I’d never witnessed. I remember thinking, ‘It’s okay to be proud of who I am and proud of my body.’ To be proud of the idea that I could tell jokes and tell my story, that I could teach people about my life in a way that was interesting and wasn’t molly-coddling them.”

At university Campbell encountered the disability movement, the body positive movement, people she related to whose ideas broadened her thinking. Through secondary school she’d morphed into “a big comedy nerd” who analysed the craft and its practitioners. Now it occurred to her that using comedy as a tool of defence was selling her talents short.

At her first gig, as part of a women’s gala, she fell back on her experiences with a hip that had slipped its moorings and made a new socket in her skin, and with the debilitating effects of Lupus. Out of an audience of “40-year-old public servants”, a man came forward and thanked her for a fascinating – and funny – real life education.

After her next gig she was approached by a woman in her 20s with Crohn’s Disease, who in a sentence laid bare the connective power of comedy. “It was so refreshing to see somebody like me up there, making jokes,” the woman told Campbell. “It made me feel like I wasn’t so alone.”

In April Campbell performed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in ACT Like A Lady. The show’s title dipped a lid to the Canberra allegiance of the rotating cast (of which Campbell was the only member with a disability), while its content tackled a decree that’s been confounding women down the ages. From observing no disability whatsoever in comedy before her Adam Hills watershed, she’s emboldened by not only an increase in performers with a range of disabilities, but moreover by the way previously-taboo subjects are met head-on.

Aspiring comics feel a shift, too. Jake Budge is a 23-year-old with a developmental disability who has experienced early intervention, speech and physical therapies and integration aids in primary school and high school. Now, once a week, he gets up in front of an audience of strangers and makes them laugh. For someone who has already done more than 130 gigs he remains modest about his budding comedy career.

“I’m thinking about doing a group show next year (at the Comedy Festival),” Budge says, admitting the idea of performing on his own for 40 minutes is still daunting. He tries to write material down and memorise it, but with short-term memory loss a characteristic of his disability that can be tricky. Repetition is key. Setting goals drives him. “I’ve already picked out a name for my first solo show: Jake It Until You Make It.”

Budge discovered he could make people laugh when giving a speech in Year 7. At the urging of friends a couple of years ago he got up on stage at a comedy night at the Sphinx Hotel, an incongruous venue that warrants a laugh simply for rising out of the Geelong suburbs rather than the Egyptian sands. “On my first gig the mic stopped working, but I didn’t notice because I was so nervous,” Budge recalls. It helps not to be easily rattled.

Disability and dating are themes of his stand-up. He’s been heckled, struggled with it at first, but now engages the antagonist in conversation. “They’re negative, you be positive.” Like Laura Campbell he draws on life experience for laughs; an early joke tells of applying for a TAFE course, coming to a question about whether he has a disability and if so what sort, wanting to write “intellectual disability” but not knowing how to. “Does it start with an ‘I’? Or is it a J? Why couldn’t they just call it ‘a brain thing’?”

A few years ago he met the late Stella Young after watching her perform. It remains a seminal moment. “With a disability, if there’s not many people doing something in the arts field you wonder if you would be able to do it,” Budge says. “She broke the way so other people with disabilities could get up and perform stand-up. She was very inspiring.”

Comedy festival executive director Damien Hodgkinson had ongoing talks with Stella Young about an issue Jake Budge and Laura Campbell both highlight as integral to comedy’s embrace of disability – access. Encouraging more artists with disabilities to participate is one thing. Making the festival accessible to their needs – and those of an audience for whom a night out presents myriad issues – is another altogether.

Auslan interpreters and hearing loops are becoming more common, but crucial provisions like wheelchair access are a challenge for an open-access festival that uses venues all over the city, many of which fit the comedy stereotype of basement rooms in ancient buildings reached only by descending narrow stairs. “It’s about us asking the question and forcing them to deal with it,” Hodgkinson says of the dance with venue management. “It’s not on people’s radars a lot of the time. But that’s part of our job – to encourage venues to make those changes.”

Laura Campbell first encountered accessibility issues at Deniliquin Primary School, where her sisters would literally drag her upstairs to class. Years later, after she’d come out of a wheelchair, she heard they’d built a ramp. “It highlighted to me that such a fight might not seem immediately satisfactory, but you’ll reap benefits for a long time.”

Campbell prescribes to the “social model of disability”, seeing herself not as disabled by her own body, rather by society’s unwillingness to make things more accessible to her. She yearns for a time when she doesn’t have to scan the festival program for shows she’s able to see, rather simply choose those she wants to see in the knowledge the venue will cater for her. That said, she knows Hodgkinson and his team are only working with what they’ve got. “This is just one more step Melbourne needs to take – all their public spaces need to be accessible.”

As for the accessibility of comedy performed by someone with a disability, Hodgkinson thinks it’s a simple reflection of societal interest in people who are seen as active contributors to the community, not problems that need to be fixed or pushed into the margins. “Humour can be a great tool to break down differences between people.”

When your story features vomiting 14 times a day, your limbs shutting down as your body swells up alarmingly, almost drowning internally as your lungs fill with IV fluid, and all the while spending 18 hours on a gurney because the hospital you’ve been rushed to has just  been flooded, the line between entertainment and discomfort can be thin. This is Campbell’s story, and as she notes, the trick is using the small moments of humour amid the real-life drama.

In intensive care, using a catheter and hooked up to all manner of tubes, she was sponge-bathed daily “by this beautiful Nigerian man. I was 17. I would die inwardly every time, him sponging me everywhere. I figured, ‘This is how I die – from embarrassment.’” Sometime later, back in hospital for a kidney biopsy, she was being wheeled along a corridor by her mother and sister when she saw him coming the other way. Campbell urged her mother to get her out of there, but not before her sister bailed the orderly up. “Remember us? You used to sponge bath Laura! She was the one who was hooked up to all sorts of things and was very pale! Do you remember her? Do you?”

Campbell remembers the orderly looking at her, at her family, then back at her with a look that said, “I’m so sorry this had to happen.”

All good fodder for a comedian. Jake Budge knows comedy has increased his confidence, and he thrives on that very particular sensation of making people laugh. “The times when you don’t make them laugh don’t matter as much, because you enjoy the feeling of when you do so much.” Campbell says it’s a high, one she’ll never tire of.

A hip replacement is bound to provide new material, what with the bone-on-bone arthritis, the attendant knee displacement that’s come from having one leg shorter than the other, the drooping muscles that will have to reshape themselves through arduous rehabilitation. She reckons doctors’ eyes light up in her presence, that first-year medical students are her best friends. “There’s so much of, ‘Oh God, there’s something here for everyone!’ And I’m like, ‘Come, come my children, and I’ll tell you my story.’”

Stella Young dubbed the objectification of disability “inspiration porn”, an unhelpful mindset Campbell thinks is being broken down by dialogue that hopefully leaves audiences feeling they know more not just of someone’s disability, but of the person. “If you see someone as this idea of an inspiration it can be too sad – ‘keep them away from sight, they’re making me feel uncomfortable.’

“But when the dialogue changes and we can connect human to human, that’s when people go, ‘Why haven’t we changed things to make it easier for you to, for example, go to a festival?’ With more diversity people will think, ‘This is just a human-to-human experience.’”