Using Humor to Change Attitudes

Oxnard resident trains able-bodied people to sensitive to those with disabilities

OXNARD–Carol Leish has made a career out of turning negative stereotypes about people into a positive affirmation of life through humor.

Since 1996, the Oxnard native has led classes called Call Me Capable, for teachers, social workers and other professionals who come into contact daily with people with disabilities.

“The in-service training teaches those who are not disabled to be more sensitive toward those coping with visual and speech disabilities, broaden their perspective and learn ways to maintain positive attitudes,” the 36-year-old said.

Leish has been diagnosed with oral ataxia, which she acquired as a result of a head trauma sustained in a car accident in 1963 caused by a drunk driver when she was 10 months old. She said a neurologist said she suffered significant brain stem damage, leaving her with slurred speech and impaired vision, but no loss of awareness or intellect.

Leish said many people mistake her condition for cerebral palsy, a condition characterized by brain damage usually at or prior to birth, or they assume she is deaf because she has slurred speech.

“For a portion of my life, I was angry because people we so quick to make assumptions about me,” said Leish, who holds a bachelor’s degree in human development and a master’s degree in education and counseling from Cal State San Bernardino. “But through continued counseling and leading the in-service training, I’ve come to terms with my own abilities.”

“I see myself as capable and other people as more capable. It has been a cathartic experience because I am able to help others and help myself.”

She said awareness is the first step in dispelling misinformation.

“My work is important because there are many subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination against the disabled during job interviews, for example,” she said.

She said her counselor encouraged her to develop humor as a tonic against negative or insensitive comments from others.

“The more that I’ve worked on my humor, the quicker that I’ve become at it,” she said. “I want dry wit instead of harsh sarcasm.  I want to be more like, Bob Hope’s humor, and less like, Don Rickles’ humor; or, something in between.

Randy Dalton, a former probation social worker now serving as a core services specialist with Cal Works, said of Leish, “I think that it is incredible how she can turn negative attitudes into a positive. That’s a great gift.”

Donna Timlin, a deputy probation officer with Ventura County Probation since 1973 who is mildly hard of hearing, said at times, she has had people say to her, “What’s the matter with you? Are you deaf?”

“No,” she’ll answer. “I just can’t always hear the beginning and end of sentences.”

Leish said she sees every challenge as an opportunity to find constructive solutions and tries to improvise and find the humor in every situation.

In 1998, Leish received the Spirit of Networking Award from the Ventura County Professional Woman’s Network and the Outstanding Young American Award from the California Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Leish will speak at the Ventura Boy’s & Girls Club August 6 and at a Girl Scout conference in San Diego Aug. 21.

By Nancy Forest
Los Angeles Times
July 28, 1999