This one satirical headline may be the best introduction to the appeal and promise of a year-old disability humor website called, The Squeaky Wheel. Digging deeper into what makes this and the website’s other headlines and stories so sharply hilarious is more than entertaining. It can also provide clues to how disability humor works when it’s at its best.
“The latest laughs in disability news” — The Squeaky Wheel motto.
After months of preparation and content creation by founder and Editor-in-Chief Steven Verdile, The Squeaky Wheel went live in June 2021. Its look and feel are similar to that of The Onion, but with a disability perspective. The Squeaky Wheel has a news website format. Its headlines are funny in themselves, with the jokes further fleshed out by short articles, supplemented with clean, professional, entirely anonymous stock images. Everything is presented as perfectly normal, told with a straight face. The disability-based anger, confusion, and humor are all implied.
Verdile has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a lifelong disability, and uses a wheelchair. He graduated from college five years ago, and is a graphic designer for an entertainment company. Over the last few years, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, he became interested in disability humor and writing.
Verdile described this process as a guest on a recent episode of “The Accessible Stall” podcast — who’s co-hosts are also disabled and tend to take a humorous approach to the disability issues they discuss. The Squeaky Wheel comes from my experience as a person with disability,” says Verdile, “someone who’s always really loved comedy and loved writing.”
Exploring existing disability humor, Verdile found what he calls an “explosion in funny content from disabled people.” He cites many disabled comedians and writers, including Shannon DeVido, “… one of the first disabled comedians I came across who I really thought captured well what my personal experiences had felt like.” Other disabled creators have influenced Verdile’s work on his work well, such as comedian and actor Steve Way, “Last Comic Standing” winner Josh Blue, standup comedian Tina Friml, Ryan O’Connell, creator and writer of the Netflix series “Special,” actress and model Lolo Spencer, actor Nic Novicki, and actor and playwright Ryan Haddad.
Each of these disabled creatives performs some combination of traditional comedy, acting, writing, and self-produced social media content — mostly focused on disability humor from a disability perspective, but often intersecting with other experiences and points of view related to gender, sexuality, race, or distinct cultural identities.
What makes The Squeaky Wheel’s disability humor good?
It’s usually a mistake to explain a joke. But for non-disabled readers — and some disabled readers too — breaking down a few The Squeaky Wheel stories more explicitly can help clarify both the humor and the points they are making.
For example, the disabled Monopoly player article satirizes the dilemma of disabled people who are constantly afraid of losing essential benefits like Social Security and Medicaid if they earn or save too much. It’s a worry familiar to millions of disabled people, but unfamiliar to most everyone else. But almost everyone understands the classic board game Monopoly, and what it means to “pass Go” and “collect $200.” A disability-specific problem is explained by linking it to an unrelated but widely familiar cultural icon. It also subtly suggests that maintaining benefits while trying to work can feel as arbitrary and unreal to people with disabilities as playing a board game.
Meanwhile, “‘Get Well Soon!’ Says Friend to Woman with Lifelong Chronic Illness” calls out the common confusion people make between ordinary acute illness like a cold or the flu, and long term illnesses and permanent disabilities. These are social blunders disabled and chronically ill people experience all the time. Like many similar incidents that happen to disabled people every day, they are also generally well-intended, but annoying and exhausting.
There’s just plain surrealism in “The Squeaky Wheelchair,” too. “This Small Town Girl in a Lonely World Couldn’t Take the Train Going Anywhere Because It Wasn’t Accessible and Now She’s Stuck and It’s Midnight” skillfully adapts the well-known classic rock song “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, again with a disability twist. It’s funny, weird, and nostalgic, while making a strong point about the prevalence and consequences of inaccessible transportation.
The Squeaky Wheel has its share of “dad jokes,” which work surprisingly well. There is also some straightforward ‘90s observational humor of the “Did ya ever notice …?” variety. But the site relies much more on pointing out more complex and important contradictions and double standards disabled people have to deal with every day. Most of the humor is multidimensional, with at least two or three elements working together in each story.
Above all, The Squeaky Wheel makes fun of the real life absurdities of living with disabilities and encountering everyday ableism. It rarely makes fun of disabilities or disabled people themselves. Instead, it satirizes non-disabled people’s habits, and the strange and frustrating situations disabled people struggle with in an ableist world. And by reversing familiar patterns and perspectives, the writers highlight not just the humor but also the illogic and injustice of things disabled people regularly put up with that few non-disabled people would tolerate.
Who is The Squeaky Wheel for?
It’s absolutely essential that The Squeaky Wheel is not a non-disabled person’s project. It isn’t a well-meaning but naive effort to “raise disability awareness.” It isn’t a parent’s initiative to create a secure job or “productive activity” for their disabled son or daughter. And it doesn’t come off as a cynical effort to make money off a supposedly underdeveloped niche in the social media marketplace.
The Squeaky Wheel was founded by a disabled man, and publishes only disabled writers. Its content and intended audience is inclusive. The site has much to offer non-disabled readers. Non-disabled can enjoy it. And they may understand disabled people’s lives a little better from reading it.
At the same time, The Squeaky Wheel mission doesn’t seem to be to make non-disabled people better allies, but to give voice to disabled people’s unique sense of the absurd. And its core audience is clearly people with disabilities. “It was important to me from the beginning that disabled readers know these jokes are for them,” says Verdile. This authenticity has the added benefit of reducing the risk of drifting into being either accidentally ableist, or too timid and anxious about the feelings and reactions of non-disabled readers.
What non-disabled people can learn from the humor of The Squeaky Wheel
First of all, there is an important difference between making fun of a disabled person and a disabled person making fun of themselves. It would be going too far to tell non-disabled people they should never attempt disability-themed humor. But some reasonable restraint is in order.
On the other hand, reasonable discretion and care shouldn’t prevent anyone from appreciating disability humor when it’s good and comes from the right source. Verdile’s advice to people who might worry about the appropriateness of disability-based humor is to “trust disabled people on what’s funny and what isn’t.”
The other most notable lesson found all over The Squeaky Wheel is that disabled life is strange, sometimes Kafkaesque, but not tragic. “Society treats disabled people in such a bizarre way, Verdile notes, “and most non-disabled people just accept that absolutely bonkers reality as normal.” The website’s humor underscores that these contradictions have more to do with ableism than with disability, a crucial distinction. Disability itself isn’t inherently funny. The way people and institutions treat disabled people is often hilarious.
Plans for the future
Verdile’s top priority is to make The Squeaky Wheel self-sustaining — not dependent on him but on a diverse team of disabled writers and other creatives.
There are ten other people besides Verdile listed as regular contributors, and right now they are all volunteers. But Verdile aims to someday soon pay contributors for their work. That is an important principle in any disability-related project. All too often, disabled people are asked to work for pennies or for nothing — out of a sense of mission or simply for “the exposure.”
Toward that end, the site is now selling branded “merch,” and will soon open a Patreon where readers will be able to help support The Squeaky Wheel. It seems like a project well worth supporting, with a lot to offer the disabled community, and to anyone who appreciates a humorous approach to serious issues.