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Lithium A deep dive into Gen-Z disability humor

Jan. 13, 2022
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This past March, after years of agonizing, unexplainable pain, I was finally diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis—an autoimmune disease in which the body misreads healthy cells as foreign bacteria and attacks them, causing joint pain, inflammation, and a limited range of motion. I broke the news to my best friend, who has witnessed my deterioration from the very beginning, with a single text: “seronegative inflammatory arthritis machine go brrrrrrr.” To another, I confided that “god gave me arthritis because he knew i’d be too powerful if i could give incredible head AND handjobs.” My closest friends laughed. Others, friends I had thought I was close to, didn’t say anything at all; I guess they didn’t know where to begin. I accumulated a slew of jokes that I delighted in workshopping on unsuspecting victims, equally giddy at their laughter and their discomfort. It was an exercise in just how far I could take the bit before reality settled in—the reality being that I had no choice but to inhabit this stupid, ailing body for the rest of my life.

Ordinarily, people don’t develop autoimmune arthritis until their 50s or 60s. I was only 17 when my symptoms first began—now, at 20, the list of things I cannot do grows greater with each passing day. I can’t ride a bike or do a cartwheel; my fingers are too stiff and achy to flick on a lighter or tie the back of a dress. Before I even realized that there was something seriously wrong with me, I dropped and shattered three mugs in one semester alone. In addition to the physical pain, there was the torturous process of being a visibly healthy young woman seeking an explanation for her chronic condition. Overall, it took four years, three orthopedists, three rheumatologists, one neurologist, and one hand surgeon before my concerns were taken seriously. And if you think that’s because I wasn’t seeing “qualified” doctors, you’re wrong. Dr. Joseph Markenson, a rheumatologist with over fifty years of experience at the esteemed Hospital for Special Surgery, told me that psoriatic arthritis was not genetic; several professionals claimed that although my inflammation levels were high, they weren’t high enough.  The most cursory of Google searches will reveal that these supposed “facts” are incorrect—or, at the very least, oversimplifications of an extremely complex branch of science.

I spent my junior year of college in subway stations, buses, and Ubers, shuffling from one doctor’s appointment to the next—even as commuting itself became a physical challenge. I was fatigued and depressed, a vicious cycle in which one state of lethargy led directly to the other; my friends didn’t understand why I wanted to meet at my place instead of theirs, and I was too demoralized to explain again. So when I wasn’t gritting my teeth, forcing my swollen fingers to type an endless stream of essays, I was usually in bed watching TikToks. That’s where I stumbled upon the hashtag #disabledtiktok, a subculture of the app in which disabled comedians and creators share their daily lives, sketches, and senses of humor.

With over 800K followers, Louie Lingard—known online by the handle @notlewy—is one of the most popular creators within the disabled TikTok community. He is also one of the most transgressive, with thumbnails that read "Professional retard," "Moral of the story: don’t be disabled," and "Cripple shoe review." Most of his content, such as the ongoing series "Things that I consider ableist because they happen to be a minor inconvenience for me," blends darkly acerbic humor with depictions of the everyday life of a disabled teen or twenty-something. I was (and still am) awed by the brutality of Lingard’s comedy; his content forces able-bodied viewers to confront their preconceptions of disability head-on. Some viewers, however, don’t know how to process this level of honesty—as reflected in comments like “I don’t know if I should laugh” and “I’m sorry for laughing.” For many people with disabilities and chronic conditions, including myself, this uneasiness is a familiar reaction. But this is all part of Lingard’s plan.

“I want to make people uncomfortable with the jokes I’m making,” the comedian explained in an exclusive interview with Lithium. “I want them to feel uncomfortable with the things I say about myself. That’s the goal of my content. If people are questioning whether or not they should laugh, I did my job.” More often than not, this discomfort stems from a place of misunderstanding and unfamiliarity with disabled people—but when there’s a disabled spaghetti foot on your phone screen, it’s kind of hard to remain unfamiliar. “I want people to realize that disabled people are able to joke and make the best of their situation. My TikToks may be really dark, and some viewers might think that I’m shitting on myself,” he said. “but that’s me making the best of my situation.” Before using the platform to make light of his disability, Lingard wasn’t as confident in himself. “I used to try to hide my disability in Instagram pictures and some of my early TikToks. I always made sure people couldn’t see my legs because I didn’t want them saying anything,” he explained. “But I feel a lot better about myself now that I’ve really started getting out there for the world to see.”

However, there’s still a lot of stigma that comes with being openly and visibly disabled, and some viewers still feel entitled to disabled creators’ lives. Since going viral, Lingard’s honesty and dark sense of humor have attracted a handful of viewers who think they have a right to the details of his private life. “People want to know all these personal things about me. It’s weird,” he stated. “That’s the one thing I don’t like about how much I’ve broadcasted myself on the internet. I don’t feel comfortable talking about certain aspects of my personal relationships.” Even so, Lingard believes that many of these people don’t actually have bad intentions. “I think what it comes down to is a lack of education that people should have had access to since childhood. They don’t know how to talk about disability, and that’s why they ask invasive questions. They just don’t know what’s appropriate to talk about and what isn’t.” Other viewers, including fellow disabled people, take issue with the way Lingard refers to himself±namely, his frequent use of the word “crippled.” He clarified, “It’s just a word to me, but that’s only how I see it. Recently, another disabled creator got really upset that I’ve been using the word. For me, it’s a reclamation. If they don’t like it, that’s on them. Although it is kind of unsettling when able-bodied people refer to disabled people with those terms.” Notably, Lingard does not refer to any specific disabled people as crippled in his TikToks beside himself.

Another creator, Sadie Fearon (@_sadoe_), has only recently begun posting about her disability in addition to her usual lesbian content. She began showing symptoms of various chronic conditions at 15, and has struggled to maintain her health ever since—a fact that isn’t visually obvious because she doesn’t use a mobility aid. Unfortunately, as Fearon is a seemingly healthy person in her early twenties, we have both experienced plenty of ageism and medical gaslighting from various healthcare professionals; however, we both possess the relative privilege of appearing to be able-bodied. In terms of her comedic work, this is a double-edged sword. “I am on Disability TikTok, but I wouldn’t say that disability humor is my primary content,” she mused. “I recognize that this is a privilege of being a person who isn’t visibly disabled, even if it comes with accusations of lying. But at least I get to choose when I do and don’t want to talk about disability.” It’s no coincidence that Fearon chooses to keep her disability content at a minimum. She explained, “Posting about disability on TikTok requires more energy than posting about being gay because you get [so much] more hate. I have occasional homophobic comments, but every single time I post about disability, people start fighting. It’s exhausting.”

Lingard and Fearon have fundamentally different experiences with disability, but both had immediate, almost identical reactions when I asked how they feel about descriptors like “differently abled” and “handicapable.” “If someone wants to be described as differently abled, that’s fine,” Fearon said. “But the reality of my illness is that I cannot do certain things. It is a disability. I need accomodations for stuff.” Lingard was slightly more blunt. “I hate when people try to sugarcoat it. Don’t be so sensitive, you know? I’m a disabled person.” Disability rights advocate Jessica Ping-Wild has stated that rather than being used to uplift disabled individuals, “handicapable” is a word that serves to "make the disabled lived condition [seem] more palatable" to able-bodied people. “I’ve had fights with my mom about the term ‘disabled’ because she doesn't understand why I would want to identify myself that way,” Fearon claimed. “So I ask, ‘why do you have the idea that disability is an inherently bad thing? Why don’t you change your way of thinking about it, instead of asking me to change my identity?’” Therein lies the essence of disability humor, especially as it relates to Gen-Z surrealism. Having a disability sucks, but it doesn’t have to be sad. Sometimes, it’s really fucking funny.

Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.