Tag Archives: activism

Nina G Uses Humor to Talk About Dyslexia

Check out my video and interview with Understood.org.  Play the video or read the transcript here!

[Interview]

NINA G.: My name is Nina G., and I live in Oakland, California. I am a comedian and professional speaker, as well as an author and disability advocate.

[At Brainwash Comedy Club]

TONY SPARKS: I need you to lose your mind…for Nina G.!

[applause, cheers]

NINA: Thank you.

TONY: Come on!

[cheers]

[Interview]

NINA: I have language-based learning disabilities that manifest in many, many ways, and I also stutter. Which isn’t LD, but it’s something going on in my brain too.

[music]

[At comedy club]

NINA: So if you have a learning disability or ADHD or you love a person that has a learning disability or ADHD, make some noise!

[cheers, woots, applause]

All right. Thank you.

[Interview]

Throughout my life, it’s affected the way that I read, the way that I write, that way that I spell, the way that I process information. Even in sign language, I thought, oh, my dyslexia’s not gonna be a problem there. But you do have the fingerspell.

[At comedy club] So I have some advice. A lot of times, I’ll be in the midst of a stutter, so I’ll be doing, “N-n-n-n.” And that’s when the other person does this with their hands.

[laughter]

You know? Yeah. Yeah. This, and telling me to “spit it out,” always very helpful.

[laughter]

[Interview]

I didn’t really have an outlet. I’m not an artist. I’m not musical at all. And sports was not my thing. The thing that I did love, though, from a very, very early age was stand-up comedy. That’s always been a thing that I’ve really loved and that I knew more of about than anybody else in my class and teachers and everybody. I learned how to be an advocate, and I learned how to have ideas, and I learned how to be heard. For me, being a comedian, I’m better able to access those ideas. Comedians who made discrimination tangible for people, so like Chris Rock and Richard Pryor and George Lopez, they were able to make audiences understand their experiences through comedy. And they’ve inspired me that maybe I can help people understand the experiences of people with disabilities through comedy or writing or whatever I do.

[At Superfest Film Festival]

I remember as a kid, maybe there’d be an episode of 90210 where one of the girls would have dyslexia. It was consider a “very special episode.” And then, they wouldn’t talk about it ever again. [laughter] And that was it. That was it!

[Interview] So many times, I think disability–whether it’s learning disabilities or stuttering or anything else–it’s presented as people being very weak. And that’s not true. In fact, kind of the opposite is true. That some of the strongest people that I’ve ever met are people with disabilities. But we’ve been presented this one image, and I think it’s really important to change that.

[At comedy club]

Thanks so much, guys!

[cheers, applause]

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Changing the image of Disability through comedy

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Big news!  The Comedians with Disabilities Act and Friends album is out.  Disabled Comedy Only is the first ever compilation of Disabled comedians on a single album.  Monumental! The recording was done independently and without any Jumpstarts or GoFundMes.  As artists with disabilities we retained complete control over our material, our image and our brand.  No abled bodied people dictated what we should or shouldn’t say.  Please support independent comedy fighting for visibility, equity, and disability justice through comedy.

Please support the album by purchasing it at: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/comedianswithdisabilitie

and sharing our videos!

Thank you for the support!

Recovering from Special Ed Depression.

When someone is being traumatized they have a few options: flee, fight or disassociate. I’m not saying that the trauma I endured in grade school from my teachers compares to that of people who have experienced sexual or physical trauma. I have what my therapist called “little ‘t’ trauma,” consistent, traumatic experiences from persons in authority who were supposed to instill self-esteem. These experiences had a significant impact on me, my adult life and relationships.

 

Years ago I experienced what I later named my “special ed depression.” This depression carried into my adulthood, and often manifested when I was still, not working and sat with the feelings from my childhood. As a kid, I had internalized the messages from my teachers, extended family and the media that I was less than. When I became an adult I felt that anything that was subpar in my life (whether it was material goods, friends or lovers) was deserved because I was a product of a childhood significantly impacted by disability.  What I realize now is that it wasn’t “special ed depression” because my special ed experience, once I got to public school was the best thing that happened to me academically.  I was with teachers who understood me and had my back.  I think a better name for my special ed depression would have been “dealing with asshole teacher depression” but that isn’t as catchy, thus the title of the essay.

 

Growing up with a Learning Disability, I suffered numerous emotional infractions at the hands of teachers, which I then internalized. Because I was “little ‘t’ traumatized” by my teachers regularly, I had to find my own way of getting through the school day. My favorite coping mechanism in 8th grade was avoiding class, and I found preposterous ways to escape the classroom. My escape plans ranged from collecting “mission money” to fund evangelizing people in developing countries to spending the better part of December and January hanging out in the school’s storage closet.

Like many Catholic girls and women, I had a hang-up about the Virgin Mary. I suppose this came from third grade when I was selected to bring the offering (communion and the money collected during church) for the All Saints mass. For the non-Catholics, let me explain. This particular mass is one of the funner masses that you have in Catholic school. All Saints Day is celebrated the day after Halloween, so there’s an opportunity to wear costumes.

I was selected to bring the offering because I told my third grade teacher my costume was “spiritual.” My plan was to get a bed sheet, cut multiple holes in it and be Charlie Brown’s ghost. My mother thought this was unacceptable and instead made me dress as the Virgin Mary: long, white gown, blue satin headdress, and China Flats with embroidered flowers (total old-school Lowrider style). Since donning this costume I suppose I overidentified with her, so later, when the part of Mary in the 8th grade Christmas play went to Lori (a Protestant with short hair!), I was pissed. I wasn’t going to play a frickin’ angel! Instead, I volunteered to “do costumes,” meaning I organized the decades-old costumes that were stored in a chaotic, musty closet. Inside it were remnants from the 1950s so it was obvious that no one had touched the space in years. I saw an opportunity in the dank clutter, and somehow parlayed the duties of “costume coordinator” into overhauling the entire storage room. I had become the 13 year old, stuttering, Italian Martha Stewart. Reorganizing took weeks, which meant some days I wouldn’t even attend class. It was a relief to be out of the classroom and spend a day going through tinsel and old pictures.  Anything to save me from diagramming sentences, reading out loud, or being shamed for giving the wrong answer was better, so I welcomed the isolation.

 

Why did my teachers allow a student to basically cut class? My guess is that I was easier to deal with away from the classroom. Every year in Catholic School my parents were told “if your daughter requires accommodations, then she does not belong here.” I never understood this because I’m pretty sure that Jesus would have made an accommodation. Compared to spending time with my ableist teachers, being alone in the Christmas storage closet was a sanctuary.

 

When I wasn’t busy cleaning closets or collecting mission money for the heathens of the world, I could usually be found in the girls’ bathroom. These excursions of elimination took at least 20 minutes and usually occurred when taking turns reading out loud in class. Teachers, if you want to get rid of a kid who stutters and has dyslexia, tell them you’re going to have the class take turns reading. They will either send themselves to the nurse with a stomach ache or head to the bathroom to avoid the “little ‘t’ trauma” of reading in front of an audience of unforgiving peers.

 

As if 8th grade isn’t difficult enough for your average thirteen-year-old girl, for the first time in my Catholic school experience I had two teachers, not just one. Unfortunately, both teachers were assholes which meant I was never asshole-free that year. They made my life hell. They were inconsistent with the accommodations I needed, embarrassed me in front of my peers for things related to my Learning Disability, and just generally bitchy. Once, one of the teachers literally but indirectly called me a “twat!” Who does that?

 

Each day was peppered with little verbal and emotional aggregate assaults on my self-esteem. The teachers complained that my 1980’s Espirit leggings and big sweatshirts were signs I was immature, yet I was dressing like everyone else if not better. As an adolescent- especially one who watched entirely too many comedians- I started to respond in ways that bordered on the inappropriate. But let me first tell you what they did, so when I tell you about showing the boys and teachers used maxipads, it doesn’t seem so bad. (Yes!  My first period joke—a passage into womanhood for all female comedians).

 

The times where ableism would flow most freely were parent-teacher conferences. At a typically tense conference my mom yelled at my teachers when they acted like I wasn’t going to do much with my life. My dad had to kick her underneath the table to get her off her “my kid isn’t just going to work at McDonalds her entire life” soapbox. That didn’t make me very popular with the teachers, but at least I knew my parents believed I was an intelligent, capable person because they were advocating for me.

 

In another conference, my parents talked about appropriate accommodations for my learning disability. Everyone agreed I would only do half of the inordinate amount of daily Math and English problems. The homework was all drill and kill, practice without learning anything new. It was busy work. After the end of the semester I received my grade: an F. I approached my teachers about it.

 

“Why is my grade an F?”

“Well, you only did half of the work. So I could only give you half of a grade.”

I explained, “Well, my accommodation was to only do half of the work and then you base my grade on that.”

“Well, you only did half of the work so you get an F.”

 

Now I could have done none of the work and still have gotten an F, but it was a total abuse of my teacher’s power, and it remained on my report card despite my objections. Another “little t trauma” strikes again!

 

Once I had to give an oral presentation with one of my friends. I worked very hard at it, felt like I did a really good job, and I did. I got an A-. My friend got an A. The only reason I got an A- was, and I quote from my teacher, I “didn’t speak clear enough.” Really Ms. Nolan? Really? You’re going to give a stuttering kid with a learning disability a lower grade because their speech isn’t as “clear”? I knew at that time she was bullshit, and it really upset me. This was the moment I started to fight back against ableism in the 8th grade. And when I say fight back, it wasn’t in terms of advocacy or activism. I didn’t have an identity as a person with a disability at that point and didn’t know that there were people fighting for our rights. Instead, I made fun of the teachers.

 

During recess, my teachers always used the childrens’ bathroom. Like most bathrooms, there was space between the floor and the door so you could see their feet. Because these women hadn’t gone through menopause yet, when they pulled their panties all the way down to their ankles, it often revealed a bloody maxi pad. Now for someone who despised these teachers this was a goldmine. I spent most of my recess and lunchtime hanging out in the bathroom just to catch a glimpse so I could laugh at the teachers and mock them. Once I opened up the bathroom door to expose the boys to the teachers’ panties and their maxi pads. The boys cringed and the teachers had no idea. I was never caught! On the last day of school I got a picture of my teacher’s feet in the bathroom stall. Unfortunately she wasn’t on her period that day.

 

I’m sure from the perspective of an outsider my behavior must have seemed obnoxious. In fact, many of the teachers and kids in my class saw me that way. In the 8th grade I learned that the stranger I acted, the less my stuttering or Learning Disability mattered because they were overshadowed by my weirdness. I would have been much better off socially if I had started to wear all black and paint my face like Robert Smith of The Cure, but that wasn’t my style. Having been exposed to comedy at an early age and idolizing people like Steve Martin, Richard Pryor and my favorite comic at the time, Emo Philips, absurdity was my genre to identify with. It was a defense that I would embody for years to come.

 

Naturally, I continued to stutter throughout school and my Learning Disability never let up, even with the Fs on my report card. The treatment from the teachers added to my already growing sense of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is the idea that if you try and you fail, and try yet again and fail, then soon enough you stop trying. This is intensified for some people who feel that no matter what they do, they will fail because they have little control over things. If they’re successful, it’s because of luck and not something that was within their power. If you have a Learning Disability or you work with people who have them, then you can recognize this. If there is a success, it’s because of a reason outside of their control (the test was easy and that’s why they received an A). Even successes are met with this mindset, so it can be difficult to change. Luckily for me there were people in my life (my parents) and others who would soon come into it, who would help to modify how I thought about myself.

 

Unfortunately, activism wasn’t yet on my radar. I didn’t know how to protest in the traditional sense of the word. Instead my protest was one that you see in many “mild-moderate” special education rooms across America: protest through silly acting out. I later learned there are better ways to advocate for yourself and to act out with purpose. My need to act out in more absurd ways was repressed until I was able to go back to my comedy roots and use standup as a means for activism and self-expression.

*This is a slightly modified version of my essay that was published in Critiques which can be purchased at: http://www.amazon.com/Criptiques-Caitlin-Wood/dp/0991573404.

Picture of the legs of my 8th grade teacher.

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Symbolizing All Of Us in the Disability Movement

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Description of picture a dark blue plus sign is in the middle of a light blue square.

I am a comedian, but I guess not for this post.  Straight Disability Studies nerd for this….

For years I have been searching for a symbol that unifies the Disability community that encompasses the diversity (both disability and other cultures) that we have.  I have always been jealous of the LGBT community because they have flags and symbols that begin to encompass their experiences.  The Disability has the American flag with the wheelchair symbol where the stars are, but I don’t see it used to represent our community.

A few weeks I was reading Jenny Morris’ Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability.  Morris writes in detail about the Third Reich’s  T-4 project.  The T4 project was the the Nazi final solution for people with Disabilities and targeted practices of euthanasia under premise that these were mercy killings and that these individuals were a burden on society.  Much propaganda went into rationalizing these killings.  Do search no the T-4 project to learn more about it.  I learned something for Morris that I never knew.  The manner in which the Nazi doctors coded whether of not to proceed with the termination of life was with a + (plus) and – (minus) symbol.  The – (minus) indicated that the person will be allowed to live and a + (plus) indicated that they would be killed.

These symbols had a great impression on me.  For years I have searched for something like the Rainbow flag or the pink triangle that symbolically conveyed the experience of the community.  The pink triangle especially impressed me because it was the symbol the Nazi’s used to brand homosexuals in concentration camps.  The LGBT community took the symbol back.   Was there a symbol that we could “take back” from oppressive experiences and make it our own?  There was no branding of people with Disabilities in camps because they were murdered fairly quickly.  For me the + (plus) symbolizes our struggle as well as our strengths.  I also feel that the + (plus) encompasses those with apparent and nonapparent Disabilities because it was meant to indicate any number of Disabilities that the Third Reich saw as unworthy lives (extending to psychiatric Disabilities).  Often times society reinforces messages that we are less than, that we are burdens to our families, communities and society.  For me, taking back the + (plus) emphasizes what the Disability community has accomplished and continues to contribute to the world.

I made the symbol “handicap parking blue” to express the need for access and civil rights.  I am not sure if this is a color universal associated with access so the applicability may be limited to the US.  Plus I am not sure if the blue on blue is friendly to some visual Disabilities.  I imagine there could be variations like a pink + (plus) for women with disabilities, a rainbow one for LGBT communities with Disabilities, or colors associated with particular disabilities (sea-green for stuttering)

I am sure that I could go on and on, but I just wanted to put this out there as well as to challenge others to consider symbols or flags that unify us as a community and express our experiences.  I would love to hear your thoughts.

Other comments from Darren Brown:

” As a youth with speech impediments, colorblindness, mental health issues and now, a physical disability, I think it’s time we look beyond our popular notion of what disability entails.”

Funding Disability Awareness Events on your College Campus

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I receive many emails and phone calls from colleges who want to have me speak or perform but aren’t sure how to fund travel, lodging and speaking fees.  This is especially true of programs for students with disabilities whose budgets are strapped and rarely have funds for guest speakers.  I have wanted to share some ideas that I oftentimes share in scenarios like this.  If you have other ideas, please share them in the comments section.

 

Disability as Part of Diversity and Multiculturalism:  Disability is a culture and people with Disabilities are part of the largest minority group in the United States.  Sometimes they are not included in events around diversity.  Having speakers who represent the Disability community can contribute to the conversation on diversity and also acknowledges the multiple minority status that many people experience.  Some schools have diversity committees that can contribute funds for a speaker and be a co-sponsor for the event.

 

Student Life:  Many colleges have Student Life departments that book shows and speakers for campus events.  Student Life often has the money to fund the events but they may not know of performers and speakers with disabilities.  Many entertainers are part of a larger organization to get their gigs but performers with disabilities may not have access to this organization because of the expense or lack of an agent to represent them.  Referring a performer with a disability can bring diversity to the Student Life department.  Although every month should be disability awareness month (in addition to Black history/ Gay pride month, etc…), it may be a good argument to get performers in October and April when many schools have or should have Disability awareness events.

 

Explore Multiple Speaking Opportunities:  When I do a show at a college, if the schedule permits, I am open to talking to other groups or classes (of course you will have to pay performers-just because we have a disability doesn’t mean we are giving it away for free!).  In negotiating with the performer, you might pull together a schedule where they are making different appearances throughout the day.  Some performers may be open to getting $100 as a guest speaker and then $800 for a big show the next night.  Thinking creatively can help entice a performer to your college, even if you are not able to pay their top dollar price.

Speakers May Not Mind Doing Double Duty:  Many performers and speakers are multitalented.  They may be performers by night but teachers, motivational speaker and trainers by day.  For example, I could do comedy with the Comedians with Disabilities Act at a night time show but be available to train faculty on universal design in teaching, speaking to fluency classes on stuttering or having a meet and greet with students who have disabilities.  Wearing multiple hats may mean multiple funding streams to support the transportation and lodging that come along with hiring a performer.

Collaborating with Student Groups:  Student groups can be a great resource for bringing in speakers.  These groups sometimes include special interests (career oriented), minority status (ethnic, disability, gay/lesbian/bi/trans), or service oriented.  Speakers who represent different groups might be co-sponsored by multiple organizations.  Speakers with Disabilities are primed to be sponsored by groups like Disabled Student Unions, future special education teachers, and social justice organizations (just to name a few).

 

Collaboration with the Community:  In higher education there is a movement toward community engagement.  Schools should be looking at how to engage with Disability related organizations.  Community organizations might have the funds but not have the venue.  Colleges might have the venue but not the funds!  Why not join each other to educate the college and local community!

 

President’s Speaker and Other Special Series: Many colleges have a special series or colloquiums where speakers with specialized knowledge are invited to speak.  These positions are often reserved for big shot academics.  The Disability community often resents “experts” representing their experiences.  A core value in our community is “nothing about us without us,” a moto appropriate from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.  So when you approach the president’s office to fund your event, be sure to share this value and why having an activist instead of an academic is appropriate.

 

It is common at colleges for events to be sponsored by many departments and organizations.  For programs for students with disabilities collaboration is especially important because of limited resources.  If your department is able to do the “work” of setting up the speaker, there is oftentimes money that can be mined from different departments.  It could take work and schmoozing, but the students with and without disabilities, faculty, staff and the local community will all benefit.  Plus the more investment by different groups the more people will come!  It is a good way to get butts in the seats and allow other groups become invested in disability awareness.

 

Please feel free to share your ideas for funding in the comments area below.

 

There are lots of comedians, performers and speakers with Disabilities who would love to speak to your college communities.  Here are just a few!  Make sure you make sure they are a good fit for your show before you book.  

 

Comedians with Disabilities Act: A blind man.  A woman who stutters.  A wheelchair user.  A Little Person.  While this may sound like a description of a support group, it is, in fact, the lineup for the “Comedians with Disabilities Act”, a comedy troupe that the San Francisco Examiner called “the most unconventional  comics  to  pop  up  in  2011.”    Made  up  entirely  of performers with different disabilities, the troupe brings their brand of humor to audiences throughout the Bay Area.  www.facebook.com/comedianswithdisabilitiesact

Nina G (hey that’s me):  Nina is a humorist who performs with the comedy troupes The Comedians with Disabilities Act and Feminist Tendencies.  She brings disability awareness to night club and college audiences through comedy.  She is also an educator and disability activist educating via workshops, keynote addresses, and trainings.  Workshop topics include universal design in teaching, disability awareness, and humor as a coping strategy. http://www.ninagcomedian.com

Cheryl Green, MFA, MS integrates her degrees in performing arts and speech-language pathology to explore how story can be used to break down stigma and barriers. She creates films with a disability justice perspective and can lecture on disability representation in the media; brain injury identity and culture; and a variety of technical topics around brain injury deficits, cognitive rehabilitation, and participation level treatment concepts. She is located in Portland, OR.  https://www.facebook.com/StoryMinders

 

Ally Bruener: Ally is a stand-up comedian based out of Louisville, Kentucky. Her sweet and innocent appearance is the ultimate misdirection once she opens her mouth. She’ll steal the hearts of a shocked audience. http://www.allybruener.com/

 

Caitlin Wood: author of Criptiques http://whereslulu.com/

 

Aaron Snyder: https://www.facebook.com/themusclea

 

Queenie TT: http://www.pssistermovement.com/

 

Chris Fonseca: http://www.comedypro.com/fonseca

 

Shannon Devido: http://www.shannondevido.com/

 

Tim Grill: www.Timgrill.com