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ACTIVISTS PROTEST LABOR DAY TELETHON
Just as the 20-hour-plus marathon has become somewhat of a ritual - expected for weekend television programming as in years past - so too is the effective, climatic way Jerry Lewis ends his Labor Day telethon. He sits on a stool, with a backdrop of dark nothing behind him, patting his sweaty forehead, singing, "You'll Never Walk Alone."
But some who protest his efforts really wish that the man would just walk alone. Period.
Is there genuine sincerity and a sense of good-natured, honest integrity behind the hours Lewis exhausts in entertaining an audience, making continuous pleas for telephone pledges and telling in-depth stories of individuals with muscular dystrophy? Some convey reason to doubt. While the Labor Day broadcast consistently offers a wide array of informative profiles and celebrity guest appearances, the telethon's primary mission to raise money for medical research and a possible cure has come under fire.
Many, including individuals who have muscular dystrophy and former poster children who have represented the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, have questioned the legitimacy of the allocation of funds, and have objected to the telethon's repeated portrayal of those with the disability as "pity victims". Furthermore, they find the character of Jerry Lewis as shady at best, as some of his public comments have also come under scrutiny.
Controversy over the success of the telethon has intensified as those once associated with the event have become independently-thinking, concerned activists. Laura Hershey, a former poster child, is leading a crusade that would ultimately lead to a significant transition. These changes, ideally, would include the telethon's willingness to subject itself to an independent financial audit, so that allocation of funds would be proven to be appropriately directed.
Additionally, in the short term, Hershey would like to see the telethon stop featuring Jerry Lewis, stop using the pity angle, and start addressing some of the social and political issues impacting the lives of people with disabilities. In the long run, Hershey would like to see the telethon end entirely, referring to it as an outmoded means of raising money, undermining the dignity and equality of citizens with disabilities. Hershey's activism has included writing articles in various publications, to provide information and to aid readers to look at the situation in a more realistic, perhaps less-favored light.
In a Spring/Summer 1997 issue of Spectacle, Hershey asserts the issues involved reflect the debate to accurately define, "charity versus civil rights, cure versus accommodation, and the relationship between pity and bigotry." She labels the telethon as a "colossal begging festival... an annual ritual of tears and guilt which, year after year, promises a great cure that waits just around the corner." She cites, however, that still to date, despite all the money that the telethon has raised, there is still no cure.
More specifically, Hershey remains concerned that the majority of the profiles the telethon airs feature children with muscular dystrophy, but adults with similar challenges are excluded. She quotes, "Never mind that two-thirds of MDA's one million clients are adults. Money is tight these days... those orchestrating the telethon have a foolproof, not-so-secret weapon: children. The point is to paint a picture of a victim so tragic, and at the same time so cute and appealing, that viewers will be compelled to call in a pledge. The victim must also appear unable to help him/herself, so that the giver can gain a personal sense of virtue and superiority in the act of giving. The telethon is not in the business of trying to represent the real lives of people with muscular dystrophy."
Hershey has also designed a website, "Crip Commentary", as a resource for disability rights activists. The website states that the Jerry Lewis Telethon, sponsored by the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), raises millions of dollars, but does so at the "cost of disabled people's dignity." The website further suggests that the telethon presents children and adults with disabilities as tragic, helpless and sorrowful. It emphasizes what people can't do, without exploring how society could improve conditions for people with disabilities. In contrast, these activists wish to "work toward a world where everyone is entitled to equal rights, access, dignity and respect."
In addition to questioning the mission and motives of the multimillion dollar organization, Jerry Lewis' character has repeatedly denoted cause for alarm - as some of his public statements do not reflect the supportive, genuine attitudes of the telethon he hosts. His comments have often emphasized pity for "his kids" and have also shown his anger and hostility, according to the activists who oppose him. In a May 20 television interview, which aired last month on CBS Sunday, Lewis said, "If it's pity, we'll get some money. Pity? You don't want to be pitied because you're a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!" Other past Lewis comments have been documented as well. In a September 2, l990 edition of Parade magazine, Lewis said, "....I realize my life is half, so I must learn to do things halfway. I just have to learn to try to be good at being half a person..."
Moreover, Lewis has made such derogatory comments during the telethons. During the 1991 MDA Telethon, Lewis said in regards to a person who has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, (ALS), "You might as well put a gun to your head." During the 1992 telethon, Lewis said: "My kids cannot go into the workplace. There's nothing they can do. They've been attacked by a vicious killer. I'm begging for their survival."
But the May 20 CBS Sunday interview sparked a public apology, by both the MDA and Jerry Lewis himself, after more than 100 people with disabilities wrote in outrage. In its statement, the MDA said,"...the Board of Directors and all of us at the Association are deeply disturbed by a comment made by our national chairman. His comment does not reflect the views MDA or its leadership, and our displeasure has been communicated directly to Mr. Lewis."
Jerry Lewis himself later apologized publicly, "The statement I made on the May 20 CBS Morning Show was made in error. It is certainly not how I feel. Many of the people that I work closely with are in wheelchairs and I have never seen any of them as inferior to anyone else. They are my friends and my co-workers. I would never intentionally harm or demean anyone with a disability. I believe in my heart that I have done good work." But some disability rights activists have argued that these statements have come too little too late, noting also that the public apologies have been the first of its kind.