Comic with BMD Builds Accessibility One Doorway at a Time

Jonah Bascle, who has Becker muscular dystrophy, uses jokes, ramps and street protests to raise disability awareness in New Orleans

Article Highlights:
  • Stand-up comic Jonah Bascle — who ran for mayor of New Orleans on a “make the streetcars accessible” platform — purchases wheelchair ramps for New Orleans businesses.
  • Bascle, who has Becker muscular dystrophy,  advocates for accessibility and equal rights for people with disabilities in his comedy routines.
by Bill Norman on October 8, 2010 - 3:55pm

Jonah Bascle (rhymes with “rascal”) unleashes his zany brand of stand-up comedy on New Orleans nightclub and restaurant patrons four or five times a week. As an unusual consequence of these gigs, more and more of the historical city’s old buildings are becoming accessible to people in wheelchairs.

As a guy who uses a wheelchair himself due to Becker muscular dystrophy, Bascle, 24, knows first hand how difficult it is to navigate the entrances to many long-established buildings in the legendary home of Mardi Gras.

That’s why, when business owners are sometimes a bit sluggish in bringing their properties into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Bascle gives them a hand by supplying custom-crafted ramps that fit over the one or two steps — impassable obstacles for power wheelchair users — found leading into many buildings.

Leveling out the obstacles

Bascle and another comedian have formed a group called N.O. Comedy Scene that has provided the wooden ramps, built by a friend of theirs, to five clubs and eateries, with at least four more in the works.  “Some businesses don’t want to get involved,” says Bascle. “But most of them realize that by making their places accessible, they’re increasing their chances of increasing revenues from people with disabilities.”

The cost of the ramps is about $120 apiece, and Bascle pays for most of them from his earnings, plus donations from the audience during his routines (in which he unabashedly promotes the rights of people with disabilities).

Ramps, however, are not his only forays into advocacy on behalf of others.

Pigs in the city limits

In 2009, Bascle ran for the office of New Orleans mayor. His lack of political experience paired well with that of other candidates, one of whom proclaimed that his integrity had been questioned only once, when he illegally owned a pig within city limits. Another suggested (not entirely seriously) that as mayor he’d bring Amish carpenters to town, since only their renowned building skills could quickly repair damages caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Bascle campaigned on the promise to make the historical streetcars that run on St. Charles Avenue accessible to wheelchair users. Although other streetcars on the city’s famed Canal Street are accessible, city officials told Bascle it would be too difficult to modify the cars that ply St. Charles. (His “campaign headquarters” was an outdoor streetcar stop on that avenue.)

Bascle wasn’t having any of what he saw as excuses, and to emphasize his point, organized a protest that effectively blocked streetcar travel on St. Charles Avenue for several hours.

Bascle readily acknowledges that many people felt his protest shouldn’t have inconvenienced innocent streetcar travelers. He agrees.

“But I think the protest did what it was supposed to,” he opines. “They may not have liked it, but it was the best way for me to focus public attention on this issue, and I’d do it again.”

Slowly making headway

The 160 votes that Bascle received in his bid for mayor weren’t sufficient to propel him into office, and the St. Charles Avenue streetcars are not yet accessible to people with disabilities, but Bascle believes he’s making headway on multiple fronts.

He’s now been named to serve on the City of New Orleans Department of Public Works ADA Transition Plan Committee, and the group has been instrumental in creating many curb cuts in a city that previously had only 90-degree curbs.

He says he’d consider running for office again, if he thought he could win.

Even Hurricane Katrina had some positive influences, Bascle allows. The three-story house where Bascle lives with his parents and two brothers (his older brother Jesse also has Becker muscular dystrophy) was not easily accessible, but after being damaged by Katrina and then rebuilt, it’s much more disability friendly, including a stairway power lift that leads to the sons’ living area on the second floor.

Check out some of Jonah Bascle’s irreverent and outlandish humor on his website.  As he explains, “Advocacy is the big thing, but I like to use comedy to get the point across. I write all of my own lines. I edit them for video. I like to have a hand in every part of it.”

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