Words of Wisdom Wednesday: Healing With Humor
How one man came to accept his disability through comedy.
Posted Dec 09, 2009
This week, I had the opportunity to chat with Ryan Niemiller, a professional actor and standup comedian about living life, thriving and, of course, laughing despite his physical disability.
Tell me a little about yourself, including your disability
I am currently working as a professional actor and standup comedian. I refer to myself as the "Cripple Threat of Comedy." I am currently stationed in Indianapolis, but I was in Los Angeles for the past 3 years, which is where I got my start. I currently tour the Midwest at clubs and colleges, as well as doing professional summer stock theater. The disability I have is a malformation in my arms. I was born with only 3 fingers on my right hand and two on my left. At birth, the fingers on each hand were conjoined. At age 3, I had a surgery to separate the fingers on my right hand, but the ones on my left are still conjoined. I also have shortened bones in my forearms. I am not entirely sure what caused the disability. My mother had the flu when she was pregnant with me, so we think that may have had something to do with it, but we don't know for certain.
What has been the most significant obstacle you've overcome in life? How did you overcome it?
I think the biggest obstacle I've had to face was just figuring out exactly how to "fit in." Adapting to the physical challenges was never an issue for me. I could feed myself, groom myself, use the bathroom on my own, etc. I didn't have a rough childhood in terms of being made fun of or discriminated against by the other kids. I figured out from a young age that if I made the joke first, people would laugh and want me around because I was the "funny kid." I still find this is an obstacle I deal with every day.
What do you think is the biggest stereotype or misconception about people with disabilities? Why?
That we need constant help or can't get anything done, followed closely by the fact that we don't need to "inspire" all of the time. As an adult, I have had issues finding day jobs because people assume by looking at me that I can't possibly handle the job. I'm thinking, "It's making coffee. It's not that big of a deal, Johnny Starbucks." Or when people will want to carry my tray at a fast food restaurant or go out of their way to open a door just for me. I'm a grown man - I've figured these things out. If you really want to help me, find me a girlfriend. That's something I need help with!
The other issue is that because of how the media shows people with disabilities, I'm always expected to be inspiring. "I now know I don't have it so bad, because Ryan, look at you!" Well, you're welcome?" People are used to seeing after-school specials where it's someone in a wheelchair with a heart of gold who gets his dad to stop drinking. It doesn't work that way - my dad drank a lot. People with disabilities have the full range of emotions too, and I feel I'm often unfairly chastised harder by people when I'm feeling sad or lonely than "normal" people are when they feel the same thing.
What has living with a disability taught you the most about life?
This disability has taught me that life isn't always fair, but you have to figure out a way to get by regardless. I went through a long period where I wish my arms weren't like this, how much easier getting by would be if I was "normal." But as the old saying goes, you can wish in one hand and crap in the other and it amounts to the same thing. As I started to get into theater and comedy, though, I realized that I could turn lemons into lemonade. There's not a lot of armless comics running around, so I have a unique point of view that sets me apart and makes me marketable. It's taught me that everyone has their strengths and their weaknesses - you just have to find which is which. I can't tie my shoes, but I can make a room of 500 people laugh about my inability to not tie my shoes, so I call that a win.
I've always felt like my disability has affected my love life, and I've talked with others who are disabled and have the same thoughts. Why do you think this is?
I think that if there is one area I could pinpoint as being most affected by my disability, it would be my love life. Quite frankly, a disability just isn't attractive in the traditional sense. I understand that. It's a basic human instinct thing. We're all inherently programmed from the days we were cavemen to look for the strongest mate, those that will give us the strongest offspring to help ensure the survival of the species. It's not quite that base anymore, but that is built into people still. And girls will look at me with my disability, and even if they don't consciously say it, my weird arms and I aren't going to give them the strongest offspring (though my disability isn't genetic anyway, but that's not the point). It takes a strong person to date someone with a handicap. I've only really had one serious girlfriend in my years, and I wasn't allowed to meet her family because she was worried what they would think about my disability. Her boyfriend she dates after me got to meet her family on the first date. Them's the breaks sometimes. I don't hate her or resent her - she's just weak.
I tell people about my troubles with dating, and it's frustrating because people don't want to believe the handicap has anything to do with it. They say things like, "It shouldn't matter. I don't notice your handicap at all!" Well, of course you don't - you're my friend, and there's no chance you're going to have sex with me. Single, available girls in the town I live in are never the ones who say my disability doesn't matter. The only girls that say they would date me are in relationships or live hundreds of miles away where it can't work. I understand it's their way of trying to make me feel better, but ignoring the truth doesn't make me feel better. There's baggage with dating someone with a disability, and I get that too. My ex-girlfriend said she never liked holding hands with me in public. I asked her why, and she said it was because people would stare. I'm more or less immune to the stares at this point, but she wasn't. When we're out in public holding hands, she's suddenly in that judgment bubble. There are also certain small things I need help with or can't do. I can't tie shoes. I have trouble with collars. I don't swim. Things like that don't seem like a big deal until you have to tie my shoe for me or you want to go swimming and I can't. It takes someone understanding and special to be able to deal with these type of things and still go, "You know? I love him anyway." I just haven't found that.
So in the mean time, I'll just get paid to make jokes about it in front of strangers instead. :)
What do you think are the biggest issues facing people with disabilities in 2009? Do you think these issues are being addressed - why or why not?
For me, it's how to contend with "subtle discrimination" and how to get a fair shake. For instance, I know there are jobs I have been turned down for because of my disability, but there's no real recourse I have against that as it was never outwardly said that was the reason. I'm sure as you know, just because someone says they're not discriminating against you doesn't me they aren't. There is still a stigma in the "normal" population that people with disabilities are less qualified or less skilled. We're not un-abled, we are different-abled. There's a big difference. I truthfully don't have the answers for it. All I can do is my part to show I am completely capable and hope for the best.
If you could tell society one thing about disabilities, what would it be and why?
Don't make assumptions. If you have a question, ask it. If you think we need help, ask us first. If you want to know how it's really like, talk to somebody who goes through it. I think everyone will be able to coexist and get things done far more efficiently.