Laughing at Disability: Remembering Cartoonist John Callahan

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 - 08:42 AM

In the same week we celebrated the 20th year anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act I learned that writer and cartoonist John Callahan passed away. He was a cartoonist who said what other wouldn’t about the experience of disability. His cartoons were hysterically funny. His book “Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot,” was both a caption to a drawing that everyone who uses a wheelchair has seen, and a collection of daring explorations of myths and stereotypes. Callahan probably had as much to do with the empowerment of people with disabilities with his universally funny work as the ADA itself.

Permission to laugh at a disability also invited curiosity about the perspective of a man who used a wheelchair. I had been in a wheelchair for more than a decade when people started sending me Callahan cartoons they had seen and clipped for me. I met John Callahan more than a decade ago on my own book tour out in Portland Oregon where he lived. He was so friendly, with a darkly sick mind I could certainly relate to. He was a quadriplegic while I was a paraplegic. On some level when our eyes met we would always ask each other: “How are you doing with all this?”

Callahan was the first to admit that having a spinal cord injury was probably the least of his problems. He struggled with addiction and depression for years and his death is, no-doubt linked in some ways with those lifelong struggles. His contributions to the language of how people with disabilities think of themselves are timeless and priceless. As good as I may think my own sense of humor is about my disability, John Callahan gave me permission to laugh at my own life. I’ll miss him. Thanks John Callahan.

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Comments [2]

More than 3 decades ago, I was in a Grand Rapids production with John H. After his accident I had moved to Detroit where we wrote a few letters and after one particular story oh his about being stuck in the sand and bemoaning the reality of being disabled I responded with a comment along the lines of
" someone's got to be part of the drones"
(while imaging bees in wheel chairs & really only trying to get a rise out of him to stop the pity party) I never heard back and I thought he had lost his sense of humor. Over the years I've seen his sense of humor is very much alive & well & thriving and I am humbled and have eternal admiration for all those whose spirit is made even stronger and whose sense of humor, like a glorious fine wine, get's even better with age. As a personal afterthought, I wonder if John still has my guitar that his mother bought for him right after his accident and if the dents in it look anything like binary code?

Aug. 02 2010 12:03 PM
Angel from Miami, FL

Christopher Gorham from the USA's Covert Affairs show spoke about the ADA's 20th anniversary in a pre-show PSA. And then it hit me, "Oh yeah, his character is blind." I sometimes forget that the character has this handicap EVEN when he's obviously using a Braille keyboard or his laser walking stick.

Jul. 28 2010 10:34 AM

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