Episode 45: Nina G (click for transcript)
Interview Date | June 3, 2020
JILL: Welcome to the DisTopia podcast, where we look at disability from the inside out. [peaceful music fades in] My name is Jill Vyn, and I’m the cohost of this podcast with my friend and colleague, Chris Smit.
What you are listening to now is the first of two interrelated components of our My Dearest Friends project, both of which have been generously underwritten by the Ford Foundation. The My Dearest Friends podcast, which is produced by DisTopia, is a series of recorded conversations with disabled people about their individual experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the personal, cultural, and political alterations it has triggered. These informal conversations give our guests the opportunity to share personal experiences of sheltering in place and to engage in conversations around deeper questions raised about the value of disabled people, the core values of the disability culture, as well as our hopes, fears, and strategies for living an authentic and pride-filled disabled life.
The second component of the My Dearest Friends project is created in partnership with disabled artist Oaklee Thiele, who is creating black and white illustrations that represent our collective response to our new and uncertain realities as a disabled community. Designed as an open invitation to the disabled community around the world, we invite all of you to participate. More information can be found on Instagram @MyDearestFriendsProject, Facebook, and on our website, DisArtNow.org.
As is true for many of you, our desire for this project is to share our experiences as a disabled community, to disrupt ableist beliefs, to celebrate a culture whose lived experience of disability necessitates flexibility and creativity, and to validate disabled voices and perspectives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
[peaceful music fades into jaunty music]
JILL: I was expecting you in your pjs or something and not all makeup-ed up or something like that, from your email. [laughs]
NINA G: You know, I already had my foundation on, and I already had my hair washed, when I was like, oh, I think this is just audio even though it’s on Zoom. I have an interview after this, ‘cause I was like, if I’m gonna have to do it anyway, I’m gonna do two interviews. And that one is on film.
JILL: Perfect. Perfect.
NINA G: Yeah.
[jaunty music fades out]
NINA G: Hi, everyone. My name is Nina G. I am a San Francisco-Oakland-based standup comic who stutters and also has a learning disability. I’m also an author. I have a children’s book that I collaborated on with another Bay Area comic, Mean Dave. He’s the illustrator. And it’s the children’s book One Upon An Accommodation: A Book About Learning Disabilities. And my other book, my memoir, came out almost a year ago, and that is Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn’t Happen. So, I do a lot of comedy. I do a lot of professional speaking. I’ve been promoting the book for a good year or so now. And for the pandemic—’cause what are you gonna do in a pandemic—as a comic, your art form is completely reliant on a live audience. It’s not like I can write and then put out a song online. No, you need a live audience to test material out and to tell you what’s funny, what’s not and to work on your timing. Especially as a stuttering comic, that when you speak to yourself, you don’t necessarily stutter. So, I don’t know I’m gonna stutter on a punchline until I’m in front of a live audience.
So, anyway. During the pandemic, I haven’t done a live show since like March 15th. And today is June 2nd, is that it? 3rd? 3rd. With that, I have been doing stuff on Zoom. I’ve been doing Zoom comedy shows and open mics. And also, I started a new project called the Comedy Time Capsule because I thought it’d be very interesting—by the way, totally stole this from Alice Wong and her Disability Visibility Project because I was on that twice, once with myself, once with my parents doing our disability oral histories—but taking the oral histories of stand-up comics to record what comedy was like before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and how they think things will change after. And to me, what was very interesting about that was comedy, to me, is it’s practically in its embryonic stage. Because visual arts, there were drawings on caves gazillion years ago. I’m not sure how many. That’s why I’m saying gazillion! I don’t know. [chuckles]
But comedy, in its modern form of stand-up comedy, was birthed in like 1959 with people like Mort Saul and Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. So, we’re in a very early stage in comedy. And this is our first, I wanna say it’s our first worldwide pandemic where contagion happens in the air. Because we did have AIDS, and comedy went through AIDS. And so, there is that. When all this happened, I was like, how’s this change comedy? Was there a change in humor after the Black Plague? There was a Renaissance, and that’s interesting. There was new thought. There were new practices. And also after Spanish influenza, was there a change in humor then? I couldn’t find anything on that. And I was like, well, now would be the time to record that! So, that has been how I’m spending some of my time.
JILL: I love it.
[jaunty music break]
JILL: Speaking of history, I love to get stories about where people started. Two parts of this: when did comedy really start? When did your disability identity get formed? I mean, you are strongly immersed in the disability community with the work you do. And just the storyline of that and how you’re changing as a result of the pandemic as well.
NINA G: For me, my own disability identity started I say when I was two and a half, because that’s when I went into speech therapy. And my mom said that when I asked for chicken, I would do [clicks tongue], and for cheese, I’d do [clicks tongue]. And my parents were like, maybe that’s not normal! Ha! Maybe! [chuckles] And so, they brought me to Children’s Hospital. I started speech therapy then for what was an articulation issue. That articulation issue, eventually it would be understood as central auditory processing. The best way that I have—and people below the age of Millennials may not understand this—but the way that I explain auditory processing is like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Which is, “Wah wah wuh wuh wah.” Like, you know, the person’s talking, but it’s kinda like, I don’t quite get it. I don’t quite know what they’re saying. And so, you attend to a lot of the intonations and the facial expressions and things like that. So, that was an early sign of that.
Also on top of that, two important things about that time. One is that my speech therapist who I had was Elaine Wells. At the time, I did not stutter, but we didn’t know this or it wasn’t a thing, but Elaine’s husband, Rich, was like the fourth member of the National Stuttering Project in the 1970s because her husband stuttered. And so, I would eventually go back to Elaine. She was my first speech therapist and my last. And even though there were not the techniques that we see today around speech management, she was doing some of that stuff because she understood that community was a key thing. And she knew that because her husband was in a community! So, being introduced to her at a very early age was key.
The second thing is, is that when I wasn’t articulating, my parents were like something, isn’t normal, “normal,” here. That was in part because my dad’s hard of hearing. He had speech therapy as a kid. He had like auditory kinds of therapy. They radiated his a—, ann—, I can’t say the word. Annoids? What’s the word? The things right….
JILL: Yeah, what is that word?
NINA G: I’m pointing to right below the ear, and I think it’s here. I don’t know! It could be my stomach. I don’t know. Yes.
NINA G: Adenoids.
NINA G: OK! So! What they did to that part of my dad’s body in the ‘50s was they radiated that hell out of it, thinking that that would cure his deafness. And then, when he went back to the hospital and was like, oh yeah. What was up with that? And the doctor was like, “Oh, no, no. You don’t understand. The amount of radiation that we did was so high, it was higher than people even in cancer have it. So, you’re OK.” [laughs] Right. No. It was total bullshit.
JILL: OK. And thus enters the medical model of disability.
NINA G: Yes! And also, my grandfather, who was a difficult man, extremely difficult man! Didn’t give my aunt and my dad a whole lot of self-esteem. But he would drive my dad from Alameda to Walnut Creek in the 1950s once a week to get him help so that he could hear better or that he could work on auditory information. It wasn’t a thing to be ashamed of. It was like, OK, you just work with this thing. So, there was already a model in my family of how to deal with disability. And I think that’s something that helped me out a lot. And my grandfather drove my dad from Alameda to Walnut Creek and back. My dad drove me from Alameda to Walnut Creek to see Elaine when I was 12. And my dad, he worked all day. Then he was a janitor at night. And he would do this in between that. And Elaine would say, “You know, Jerry, you are falling asleep in the waiting room. There are other speech therapists in the Alameda-Oakland area. You don’t have to come 30 miles each way.” And my dad’s like, “No, but Nina likes you. So, we’re gonna stay with this.” Those were the kinds of things that I had growing up as a kid, which I feel very, very lucky about.
On my mom’s side, my mom’s mom had polio. You know, like all of our wonderful leaders in the disability movement, a lot of them had polio. My grandma would not have fallen into their category! Because she’s eh…. She embraced her disability in very dysfunctional ways. So, she used it to get medication. She used it to get attention. She’d always like wanna kinda show it off in this very histrionic way. I think she may’ve also had a doctor fetish because she’s the only person who I’ve ever heard say, [uses a husky voice] “I’m going to the doctor. I need to get my doctor panties on.” So, [laughs] you know, she’s like 70 years old. And I’m like, ugh! Doctor panties?! Oh, my god! That’s so weird. And she had every contraption you could have from that thing that you slip over that poof, it’s like a Ferris wheel for—
JILL: Yeah, well, it has you so you lay down with your head down.
NINA G: Yes, yes.. And so, she would have that, and she would hang upside down. And she’s like, “This is gonna help my back!”
So, having at least someone with a disability in a family, even if it was weird, was still helpful because my mom didn’t see disability as a weird thing. She married a guy who was hard of hearing. She’s like, well, if my kids are hard of hearing, whatever. That’s fine. And she was actually, I think, more accepting of it than my dad ‘cause I think my dad was afraid that he would be the one who had caused a disability. Which I didn’t get a hard-of-hearingness. I just got central auditory processing and dyslexia, which is probably from his side anyway. And I have two cousins who stutter on my dad’s side. My great, great uncle had stuttered, too. So, that was on both sides. And that makes sense with it being genetically linked, which some of the research indicates. So, that was my early identity.
I have friends who are my age—I am 46—and I have friends who are my age whose parents brought them to the steps of the 504 protest in San Francisco, and Alameda just being right across the Bay. My parents didn’t do that kinda stuff, but they normalized it in a way that kind of got me further along. And they would fight like hell when I went into Catholic school. Because I went to Catholic school from 1st grade to 8th grade with half a year in there being at Raskob Learning Institution. And if anybody from the Bay Area is 40+ and diagnosed with dyslexia in the Bay Area, you probably went to Raskob because that was a place we all went to. So, they would fight, and that wasn’t a foreign thing to them. They wouldn’t take no for an answer from my Catholic school teachers. And then eventually, I went to public school and was part of Special Ed or Resource Room, however you wanna call it. And I had an IEP. And like I had a really overprotective Italian mom—Italian dad too—but Italian moms especially! And so, I can barely leave the house, but she let me watch Richard Pryor’s specials and be up all night. So, there wasn’t protection in terms of content. It was just of going out in the world.
[jaunty music break]
But in freshman year, she was like, OK, Miss Bramlette, your Resource teacher seems to have this. You’re gonna advocate on your own. So, if there’s a problem, we’ll go and talk. But otherwise, it’s cool. And they really felt that Ms. Bramlette had my back. And she did. And she still does. She’s always the first one to like a status on Facebook. She’s wonderful. And so, Elaine and Ms. Bramlette, who are two people who are very special to me, are still in my life. So, that is really nice. So, I started to understand advocacy in high school. I was like, oh! So, the world isn’t like Catholic school. And then I went to Community College. And there I was like, oh! You just ask for an accommodation, and as long as it’s a reasonable one, you’re good. And then I went to Berkeley. I was like, oh! I don’t like taking my tests in a room with 30 other the dyslexics. But if I ask for it to be a typed out, because that’s the way that I process best, I know I can get my own room in The Cave. Which is if anybody who went to Berkeley at the time who has a disability, you know The Cave. And that’s where I was introduced to technology that will read out loud. So, that was really important to have that. I was like, OK, I’ve got this figured out.
Then I went to graduate school for my doctorate. While I was there, people were like, [snarky voice] “Well, you know, if you still need an accommodation, then maybe this isn’t for you.” So, there is that kind of attitude. And, you know, people putting on my evaluations that, “Well, she stutters when she’s anxious.” It’s like, no! I stutter all the frickin’ time. [laughs] And sometimes I stutter less when I’m anxious. So, nobody can make sense about anything. And also just kind of that attitude of if you need extra time on this thing, then, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know! You may not be able to cut it. It was to get my doctorate in psychology, which is like one of the most accommodating professions once you get past the gate keepers, ‘cause there’s so many things that you can do with that. So, when I started to encounter those kinds of issues in grad school, I was like, oh, I know this feeling. I’m back in Catholic school. And I was like, oh, I guess things are not great. And that’s when the disability identity, I guess, kind of, it’s the activism part started to happen.
I kind of feel that you can be an activist in more multiple ways. And I did a lot of trainings for years and years and years. But when I was 36, I got up onstage to be a comic. I’ve actually been a comedy fan longer than I’ve been dyslexic and a person who stutters because I started to like comedy when I was 5 years old. And so, that is probably my oldest identity! And I wanted to be a comic from the time I was like 11 to 17. And I’d write stuff, and I’d research open mics, and I’d do all this. But I never realized the dream. I never got up onstage because I stuttered. And in 1990, you couldn’t be a person who stutters and a comic. I never saw that. Dream died. I went to a conference for people who stutter when I was 35. Came back from that changed. Because I realized how much I was holding back in terms of communication, in terms of, like I felt guilty about putting my stutter onto other people. I think in my professional life, I was doing fine because the stutter did not hold me back there. And I think coming from a working-class family whereas long as you work, everything is fine! That is the most important thing! So, yeah, it didn’t affect me in my work, but I knew it affected me in personal life and some of the work choices I made. And so, I came back from that changed. Changed a lot of things in my life. And then within 6 months, I got up onstage and started doing comedy. And now it’s been 10 years.
JILL: Wow. You were born into a community, but you still seem to have made your own. You make your own path with those tools.
NINA G: And then also one more thing about that is my dad was hard of hearing, his dad was hard of hearing, and my grandfather’s mom was hard of hearing. Like, I’m 4th generation disabled American is how I look at it.
JILL: Yeah. And what if the school where you got your doctorate had those historical experiences, you know, or people involved that had different disabilities and different lived experiences? How different would they work with it? Just like Berkeley? I mean, everybody knows the Berkeley story, right? I mean, if you’ve been studying disability history.
NINA G: And I wish Berkeley understood their disability history ‘cause they forget about it every once in a while. And like the access kinda goes up and down sometimes there.
JILL: Well, that’s interesting. So, that’s why it needs to be who’s involved in leadership and who’s being hired and what students are being drawn in always has to have the presence of disability to keep it.
NINA G: Yeah. And I’m almost sure. ‘Cause I was one of the last classes to have an affirmative action thing, ‘cause affirmative action changed within like five years from that. And I’m pretty sure I got in because I live nearby, and I was disabled. And, you know, I had a 3.5 coming out of community college, which sounds high, but now, it’s much more competitive. That’s where I had that opportunity because of the times, because they put that as an important thing. And I don’t know how they look at it now, but I know that it’s much more challenging to get in there, so.
[jaunty music break]
JILL: So, how would you define your disability community now?
NINA G: It is a little bit of this and a little bit of that. [chuckles] So, I think I’m very well planted in the stuttering world. And a lot of my friends, like one of my best girlfriends, Gina, she was in my wedding, and she stutters. And I met her not through stuttering but through other things. When I go and travel, I find a stutterer wherever I am because we’re super tight. There is a conference every year except this year! But there’s a conference every year for the National Stuttering Association, which is, it’s like the NSP, which is the National Stuttering Project. They have a conference every year. I go to that often, and I see some of my great friends who live all over the world now. And it’s something that just ties you in. The stuttering community, communication is such a key part of your identity. And so, the communication style that we all share, or the communication barriers, I think is more like it, that we all share, that really ties us all together into this common experience.
I don’t have that with the dyslexic community as much. And I kinda wish I did, but we’re not great at finding each other. There’s so few of us! And even within the stuttering world, one of the things that I oftentimes talk about—and this, I think, just isn’t true of dyslexics, but I know it’s true of other kinds of disabilities and also around race and sexual orientation—is it’s like, OK, you’re in this world now. You gotta just be this thing. You could only stutter here. We’re not gonna talk about gender. We’re not gonna talk about dyslexia. We’re not gonna talk about race. We’re just all stuttering all the time. And that’s not necessarily that organization, but it’s just that thing of—and I hear blind people talk about this, too—like if you’re in now world, that’s the only thing that you can be right there, right now. And I really think we need to bring all of ourselves into something. Because I know that being raised Italian Catholic and being a woman and stuttering, ugh! All those things have collided in my life. And for us not to talk about race and culture and whatever, it misses out on the full experience.
JILL: How do you bring those into your work, the intersectionality that you’re talking about?
NINA G: For me, I mean, I just don’t do stuttering material. I talk about my grandma and I talk about being Italian and I talk about how I have to pluck my chin hair a lot. You know, like all of these things are all part of me and part of my comedy. And I think you don’t always have to be that one thing that people view you as. And sometimes that can be within our own community, too. And I think if we can bring our most authentic selves, you know, that whole thing, that we are able to— You know, like disability community and disability activism and disability advocacy and disability allyship is gonna look different for everybody. Not everybody’s gonna go wave a flag. Not everybody’s gonna go to a protest. Not everybody’s going to do things in the way that certain people do it. And in fact, sometimes, finding your own way in that is also an opportunity to talk to people who may not always be hearing you. And I know I have a lot of very conservative family members, and I oftentimes have to tell them, like, “Oh, yeah. Special Ed is a pipeline into prisons.” And the way that I’m able to explain that to them, they’re able to understand it because I’m coming at it from a Catholic point of view and coming at it from their framework. It doesn’t change their minds, but for a second they [laughing] understand! So.
JILL: Well, it means that you can have that conversation rather than avoid it—
NINA G: Yeah.
JILL: —if you meet them where they’re at. And how many of us avoid those potentially charged conversations with people that we’re closest to?
NINA G: I mean, that’s why I love comedy. And the people who have influenced me the most tend to be African-American comics, because from them, that’s where I learned about racism. That’s where I learned about incarceration. ‘Cause when my mom brought me to see Richard Pryor Live at the Sunset Strip when I was nine, ‘cause she didn’t care if I heard the word “motherfucker” a bunch of times that I was exposed to information. And to me, comedy can be a powerful tool that way because it gives us that opportunity to talk about stuff and to, Josh Blue says, take the piss out of it. Like right now, we’re a week in to the death of—and I’m awful on names—George Ford.
JILL: George Floyd.
NINA G: And so, we are into that a week. There’s been protests everywhere. Today, there are some white people who are doing a white out Wednesday because yesterday people did a Facebook profile where it was all black because it was their opportunity to listen and to learn and to take that time to kinda take a break from that. And so, white people are now like, “Oh, I’m protesting by doing all white! Because there’s white people who are being affected, too!” And I was like, you know, what a great time to make fun of people. Like [laughs] that just like, they just give it to you on a silver platter!
JILL: Right. And it shows how many of us, we form opinions. We form assumptions where those have come from, and all our lives we’re not questioning. We’re not listening when we immediately respond with the opposite.
NINA G: Yeah. Countering.
JILL: Did you take time to listen, or did you use this as an opportunity to be an asshole?
NINA G: And there’s a lot of asshole-ness that is rampant all the time. But I think the combination of the pandemic and, you know, the whole thing with the white lives matter. If that were the case, then you would all be wearing masks! You’d all be waiting a couple weeks to get your hair cut. Like that all lives matter thing, that is out the window. You can’t even use that. Anyway, these are all great things for comics to kind of glob onto and to make fun of, to say this is ridiculous. And to use that as a tool there. And what has been really cool to see is it’s not comics who have responded, but it’s the K-Pop community [laughing] who has taken over the All Lives Matter hashtag on Twitter. So, it’s all K-Pop! [laughs, then applauds] So, bravo, K-Pop fans! You have done a wonderful service.
[jaunty music break]
JILL: What you’re talking about is how powerful art can be. You talk about comedy as being your avenue to express the things that you couldn’t express otherwise! Again and again, we turn to art and the artists of the world, which I will call you on. In one of your presentations, you didn’t call yourself an artist.
NINA G: Yes! The thing is, is that, I mean, dick jokes can be an art form and they are. [laughs] But just like I guess with all kinds of art, there is good art and bad art. There seems to be a lot of bad art in comedy. But yes, I do see comedy as an art form. And I think even still, there is a little bit of that imposter syndrome still. And I think that’s been amped up a teeny bit in the quarantine ‘cause it’s like— It was DNA, who is a comedian in Santa Cruz who owns the DNA Lab, which is a comedy club there, but he also has central auditory processing issues. And I interviewed him for the Comedy Time Capsule. And it’s up, and you can see this, but he asks, “What is a comedian if there’s no live audience?” Like, what is a visual artist if they can’t have a canvas? And so, that is what we are dealing with now. And I think it’s easy to go back into that imposter syndrome of like, yeah! I’m not really a comic! I just tell some joke sometimes.
JILL: Is that minimizing your impact, minimizing your skill?
NINA G: Oh, yeah!
JILL: And why? Why do that?
NINA G: Because I’m conditioned as a woman!!! [laughs] What do you think?!
JILL: Well, that’s BS. So, let’s call it what it is. I mean, how much does being a woman and your disability identity, do both of those lead to that?
NINA G: Oh, yeah. Totally. Totally!
JILL: Because from the beginning, you were like, well, there’s no stuttering comics. I better go get my doctorate. [laughs]
NINA G: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
NINA G: Pretty much.
JILL: But I betcha your doctorate in psychology has helped you in your comedy routines, is that, and in your perception of life.
NINA G: Yeah. Well, for me, I love the relationship with the audience. I find that really interesting. And that’s where without that now, what you do with that? And so, that’s been interesting to try and figure it out. But also coming from a Disability Studies view, I try to implant that into my jokes. Like, a lot of times stuttering comics will make fun of the stutter. I always try to make fun of the assholes I encounter instead. So, I think that’s—
JILL: Like the ridiculousness or the ableism that you encounter.
NINA G: Mmhmm. Yes. And if I can do that at an 11:00 show at a dive bar with a bunch of drunk people and carry it off, I’m so proud of myself.
JILL: And they go away not even realizing what just stuck to them.
NINA G: No!
NINA G: It’s just there. Yes.
NINA G: What’s been interesting about the Comedy Time Capsule interviews, I am interviewing people most of whom know me through comedy. And so, I’ve been working with them for 10 years. No one’s interrupted me. No one’s looked at me funny. No one’s done anything! I feel like in my everyday life, yes, exactly!! I’ve gotten like, “Oh, so spit it out” kind of stuff! And this is even on Zoom. So, there’s lots of opportunities to interrupt, but there hasn’t been—
JILL: They might just assume it’s the Zoom, the connection.
NINA G: Yes.
JILL: So, they’re giving more time. [laughs] Just kidding.
NINA G: Well, no. Rudy Ortiz said that our communication may again better because of Zoom, because now we have to wait for what the other person has to say and make sure they’re done and not talk over them. And I’m all, “Rudy, that’s what we’ve been fucking saying for all of these years, is just shut up!” He’s all, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, that’s good.” The Wizard of Oz is like, I’ve always resented, it’s the good witch at the very end where she tells Dorothy that, “Oh, you’ve had the ability all the time. All you had to do was clink your shoes, and then you can go home.” And it’s like, well, what the fuck were the flying monkeys and the apples being thrown at me then? Like, why did I have to go through all of that? But that is because it’s a hero’s journey that apparently we all have to go through. But that is the thing, is that these things have always been there, but now able-bodied people are seeing them because of the pandemic.
I posted the other day on Facebook, it was like, OK, y’all learned how to work from home because of the disabled community. ‘Cause I have so many friends who were like, “If I could just work from home, I could do this, and it could be great.” “Oh, no, no, no. That’s not a real job.” As soon as able-bodied people have to do it, then it’s real. They’ve done that with communities. They’ve done that with entertainment. Now, everybody’s had to adjust to a disabled lifestyle to some extent. And now disabled people are even showing us how to be activists now, because not everybody’s able to go to Black Lives Matters protests. They have to turn to other avenues, and disabled people are the ones who can show them how to do that.
[jaunty music break]
JILL: Some people have talked with us about, hey, there’s this moment to gain information and respect for the disabled community. But now we’re gonna return to community, and the disabled community is gonna be the last to return.
NINA G: Mmhmm!
JILL: So, what is their economic value to the community? Why are we not caring? Why are we not talking about that whole group of people who won’t be able to enter as quickly as everybody else?
NINA G: My friend Michael Beers talked about this really, really eloquently when I interviewed him. His thing was so incredible, where he was like, “People are trying to kill us.” And he was just like very matter of fact. He’s like, “Nina, people are trying to kill us because they won’t wear masks,” and they won’t do this and they won’t do that. They need haircut, and now it’s ugh. He is a Native American but was adopted by Irish people in Montana. And his Irish dad said—
MICHAEL: He said, “This is in your blood. The tools and ability to get through this are in you.” So, there is the anger, but there’s also, there’s a certain sense of pride in that and being like, Nina, they’ve been trying to kill us for hundreds of years, and we need to advocate against that. But at the same time, they have not been successful.”
NINA G: And that adaptation, I think, for the disabled community is what we’ve lived on and thrived on. It’s like they’re appropriating our adaptation! [laughs] And they better not take it from us and pull the rug out. And to know that there are different ways to do stuff. You know, and that’s where I know a lot of people in the disabled community say that we should be past awareness. But what you just explained is an awareness of a different kind. And I have never thought about this in this way until you said this. Like, there is like, oh, yeah! I’m aware that we need ramps, and I’m aware that we need to have captioning. But is there an intentionality kind of awareness? Is there a self-awareness? Like, maybe our disability awareness needs to be Able-Bodied Self Awareness Month. [laughs] Like maybe that is what we need. Maybe rebranding in that way might be a thing.
JILL: Any time you label a month, you know, people are like, well, that’s great for that month.
NINA G: [chuckles]
JILL: Let’s keep this going for every day.
NINA G: Well, especially ‘cause I get all of my speaking gigs in October. Meh! It’s like, you know, in November, it’s wah wah wah. So, yeah, I would love to make money throughout the year, just not in October.
JILL: That means that your primary audience is the disabled community or people who want to celebrate the disabled community because it’s that month, and they need to check off that box?
NINA G: Somewhat, yes. That is when things are organized enough to have that, which is wonderful and great. Because I think you need to acknowledge those times. But I also think that you could do something in December too.
JILL: What I’ve gathered is you are doing a lot of teaching. At what point can you move on to the next phase and say, “You should know this. Let’s move on to the next thing.”
NINA G: This came up in therapy [chuckling] a long time ago. I was doing some online dating. In my profile, I suggested that I might stutter. Like you had to kinda go through that. And so, I made it just like a job interview where I was like, OK, as soon as I get the date, then I’m gonna send them information on how to talk to a person who stutters. And my whole thing was, was like, you’re not paying me. I’m not going to educate you. Unless I’m on a stage telling dick jokes, I will educate you, but I’m not doing it otherwise. So, you go learn this shit on your own! And so, I’d send them a link about how to interact with a person who stutters, and I got very mixed things. Sometimes guys would say stuff like, “Well, you know, maybe you’re not ready to date if this is what you are doing.” I was like, yeah, because everybody on OKCupid is totally ready to date. That’s everybody there. It’s like totally—
JILL: Well, it sounds like you had your own weeding out process.
NINA G: Yes.
JILL: I mean, you’re like, “I’m not gonna waste my time on someone who’s an asshole that I wanna get up from dinner from.” You were filtering. That’s interesting.
NINA G: I was filtering. But when I told my therapist this, I was like, “And I’m gonna send this, and then I’m done! I’m not gonna educate. I’m not doing anything!” And my therapist, Dr. John, he is like a 70-year-old-ish African-American guy who’s married to a white woman who said, “I’ve had to educate my wife throughout all of this being a Black man, because,” and he gave some examples of how she would go through a crowd, and then she’d turn around like, “Where are you?!” [chuckles] And he’d be like, “I can’t push people out of the way like you can!” And he’s like, “You have to educate people all the time, and it has to be a constant conversation.” And I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” [laughs] Like yes.
JILL: Yeah, but that’s frustrating.
NINA G: And it’s interesting now with the pandemic, will people be able to build on this to understand what an accommodation is? Since some of us are getting them in terms of talking to their families, in terms of doing their jobs. Can we understand that process more? Hopefully. I don’t know.
JILL: Now, we’re like, if you’re not at a meeting, people know that you can still connect virtually.
NINA G: Mmhmm.
JILL: And so, maybe not just for disabled people in the community, but for maybe people who have lower socio-economic status or don’t drive or don’t go to public places or, you know, like whatever it may be, is there gonna be like your family taught you to advocate for yourself? Are we being empowered to advocate for something different?
NINA G: Well, and normalizing it.
NINA G: Normalizing alternatives.
JILL: I think now we have relatable stories that can hopefully just keep being told, so when someone questions it, you’re like, well, this is how this benefits someone. Hey, maybe you can continue those types of hours. Maybe you’re gonna bring in more income to your business because you’re thinking, not just accommodating, but accounting for all the people that can enjoy and want to enjoy everything that’s in the world.
NINA G: Everything, yeah. Now, and it’s not to say that there aren’t some additional barriers. Because I know a lot of people who stutter. They’re saying that their stuttering is going up. I think the British Stammering Association did a survey, and 60% of the participants said their stuttering’s going up on this. I know for me, ‘cause if I’m doing stuff that isn’t comedy and don’t have that identity as a person who stutters, I try to do my little tricks to be fluent where I start to march out my name. And I’m, “Ni. Na,” like that. Which is not good communication to march out your name! I would much rather just stutter through it, but I am trying to conceal it so that it just goes, and I don’t have to deal with the other person, all that stuff. And so, I know for me, those secondaries are something that I’m really concerned about and that I have to watch for now. And also people who have dyslexia, I don’t know how it’s impacting us. You know, there’s a lot of underemployment in the disability community in general, but especially, I’m thinking of the LD and ADHD population. And so, if so much is reliant on written word, then how is this impacting? I don’t know.
When I’m professionally speaking, it’s definitely a bridge. But I also think when I do comedy, like when I got into comedy—and not everyone’s gonna understand this reference—but I wanted to be the white female disabled Paul Mooney, who is a comic that was on The Chappelle Show. He would do the Ask a Black Man. And the thing that is amazing about his comedy is he just comes out, and he says it. He totally doesn’t care what other people think. People walk out of there because they’re so offended. And when I started doing comedy, that was my goal, was to present a disabled point of view. ‘Cause I see some disabled comics, and I see this among a lot of comics right now. They present the joke that they think the able-bodied person wants to hear, not the joke that the disabled person wants to hear. And the models that I had were the ones who spoke from their perspective, not from the audience’s.
JILL: I love that. We talk a lot about who our audience is for our work as well. The disabled audience is really key. If you get disabled audience members, they also become models. They know when to laugh or that it’s OK to laugh, right?
NINA G: Yes! All of that! Yes. I live right next door to Berkeley. I’m in Oakland now, and Berkeley’s right there. And Berkeley audiences who are so liberal and so, like, “I am aware of everything.” They will not laugh at me because they’re afraid to laugh at the disabled person. And it’s like the disabled person’s telling jokes. Like this is the one time you can do that.
NINA G: And it’s like you ableism is showing if you don’t. [laughs] And so, it’s just a very weird thing. Anytime that I have an opportunity to make fun of a Berkeley audience, I do try to seize that, so.
JILL: That’s funny. Have you had anyone walk out like your role model?
NINA G: Not necessarily. I did have a woman, one night, [chuckles] and it wasn’t anything that I said. It was how I was saying it. I said that I stutter. And the woman got out of her seat and said, “I can’t take this!!!” And then she left. [laughs] And then everyone was, what the fuck? And it got them on my side. I didn’t even have to say anything else. [chuckles] And then she came back and was like, “OK. I stuttered all through middle school, and I got through it. I hope you can get through the next five minutes with me., So, that was fascinating. And that was— I love that stuff. Whenever I am heckled, I feel like I’m the person walking down the street who is just waiting to get attacked so that they can use their black belt skills. Because I have a black belt in people making fun of me. And so, all the microaggressions that I ever had, they’re all stored up. And I’ll release them onto someone who says something when I’m onstage.
JILL: You were made fun of as a kid?
NINA G: Oh, yeah! Yeah. I’m made fun of now! [laughs] And now it’s not made fun of. Now it’s just like microaggression, but it’s the same thing. After shows, sometimes people will say that I’m faking it, that I’m trying to do it for comedic effect. Look at my YouTube channel and the comments. If you need any evidence that there’s shittiness in the world, look at my comments. You know, I went to Catholic school. I had some really crappy teachers.
JILL: That’s a badge of honor, actually, right?
NINA G: Exactly! That is what comedy’s made from. And generally, art, so.
JILL: I love talking to you. This is fun. I’m curious what we missed.
NINA G: People can read my book. There’s more in there. There’s gonna be some upcoming events depending on when this comes out. But we are both on calls for National disability Day in July. I’m also gonna be on the Disability Pride Festival PA. So, the one in Pennsylvania. So, and that’s the thing, is now, without having to travel, I can do gigs in Pennsylvania, and I’m right there. So, it’s been nice that way.
JILL: Sounds exciting. Do you ever cross paths with Creative Growth?
NINA G: We did a show with them a few years back. It was a fundraiser. And it was like, I get to do three disabled shows a year, and it’s just like oh!! If every single audience was like this, where they just get the jokes right away, where they laugh at every place, just not at the one place, you know. [jaunty music plays for the next few sentences] It’s like they just get the whole thing. And the Creative Growth one was totally like that.
JILL: Thank you so much, Nina.
[jaunty music fades out]
JILL: Thanks for listening. Be well, keep your distance, send us your comments, questions, and your submissions for Oaklee Thiele to hello@DisArtNow.org. Please make sure to follow the My Dearest Friends project on Instagram, Facebook, and DisArtNow.org. And thanks again to the Ford Foundation for their support of this work and to cat enthusiast Cheryl Green for the transcription of this podcast episode.
Music: “Donnalee” by Blue Dot Sessions. (Source: FreeMusicArchive.org. Licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License.)