Putting a humorous spin on learning disabilities
by Randy Pinsky
“Ha-ha your way to a whole new understanding of neurodiversity,” read the ad for the Neurodiverse Show, a comedy fundraiser coordinated by the Montreal Centre for Learning Disabilities (MCLD) and Perfect Bite Productions, which took place May 11 at Hurley's Irish Pub. Headlined by Montreal’s legendary Joey Elias and featuring an all neurodiverse line- up, comedians shared personal stories with heart and humour to a packed crowd.
An annual tradition, the comedy show took a hiatus during the pandemic but was back in full swing this year, hosted by Zak Kik.
The audience was excited to see brand new comedians on the roster: the members of the MCLD’s Ambassador Program, who receive coaching and give speaking engagements at schools and community centres. Their aim is to sensitize audiences to the daily struggles of living with a learning disability.
For many, the comedy evening was their first time at stand-up.
“Having a learning disability is like [navigating] the streets of Montreal,” explained Chris Simeone, one of the ambassadors. “There are orange cones everywhere.”
Georgia Kiriakos, another ambassador, quipped, “My learning disabilities negatively impact my mental health, but because I have a short-term memory, I’m not depressed for too long."
The comedy training was a new initiative this year in collaboration with Vancouver comedian David Granirer, founder of the Stand Up for Mental Health program. Struggling with depression, Granirer discovered the power of comedy as a vehicle for talking about mental health. “You can’t change the past, but you can get the last laugh, and that can be really therapeutic,” he said in an article published on the Culture Days website, a national charitable organization celebrating the arts.
A comedian herself, MCLD’s vice president Pam Wener knows firsthand the power of humour. When the organization received a government grant to address mental health, it was the perfect opportunity. The Ambassadors received a six-week training course, as well as two hours of personal instruction with Granirer to prepare sets about their own experiences.
Wener noted their increase in confidence and bonding, and recognition of the value of raising awareness about learning disabilities. “[As David observed], you can get so much more education into people with humour than with a sob story,” she said in an interview with Inspirations.
Francesca Dansereau is a prime advocate of MCLD's services. Now an ambassador, she recounted to the audience about feeling inadequate at school and said one teacher told her she was “not worth correcting.” She has proven that educator wrong.
MCLD’s predecessor was the Quebec Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, which was started in 1966 by a group of parents seeking advice on helping their children in school.
“When it comes to learning disabilities,” the organization stated, “we have one purpose – to listen, understand and inform.” The MCLD community is part “of a growing movement to break down barriers and tear down stigma,” offering services for children and adults alike.
The ambassadors' comedic timing and delivery was praised by seasoned veterans Annie Deschamps and Alain-Mylène Papillon, who shared their own experiences with ADHD and dyslexia during the fundraising show.
The comedy night concluded with raffle prizes from local businesses such as Dolly Swan and KidLink. “Thank you for coming out in support of this organization that is so dear to my heart,” said Wener, with Kiriakos reminding the crowd, “having a disability makes you special and is something to be proud of.”