Lewis Pity-thon Perpetuates Stereotypes

Labor Day is fast approaching.  It represents the end of summer.  To me, Labor Day also represents  yet another celebrity-driven […]

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Labor Day is fast approaching.  It represents the end of summer.  To me, Labor Day also represents  yet another celebrity-driven TV extravaganza: the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. The Lewis telethon, stale in its beliefs (but glitzy nonetheless) continues to perpetuate outdated, unrealistic, stereotyped images of people with disabilities.  Since 1981, the 75-year-old Jerry Lewis has been hosting this finely-honed TV production for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).

The purpose of the Jerry Lewis Telethon is to raise money—lots of money!  The more money they get, the greater the success of the telethon.

The sad truth is that events like the Lewis telethon have been successful at raising money by perpetuating stereotypes of people with disabilities as victims, helpless poster children, people meant to be pitied, and by focusing on teary-eyed parents whose children have lives which are worse than death.

During one of the telethons, Jerry Lewis blubbered, “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.”


Jerry Lewis still talks about “his kids” in a patronizing, condescending manner.  Hey, this worn out theatrical act still works, and Jerry Lewis is a master at tugging at the viewers’ heartstrings.  So audiences give, give, and give…

However, each year leaders with disabilities continue to be impatient with Jerry’s medieval tactics.  Leaders are tired of the same old shop-worn images of themselves.  In fact, former poster children who themselves were actually recruited for the Telethon formed “Jerry’s Orphans” in protest of the MDA Telethon.

Jerry Lewis and MDA are inscrutably defensive regarding Jerry’s Orphans.  In fact, they are downright mean and unforgiving to anyone bold enough to question their tactics. Recently, on CBS News Sunday Morning, May 20, 2001, Jerry Lewis reacted to growing criticisms of the MDA Telethon’s narrow-minded belief that people donate out of pity.  Lewis emphatically justified this approach, saying “I’m telling people about a child in trouble!  If it’s pity, we’ll get some money.  I’m just giving you facts.”  He went on to say, “Pity?  (If) you don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house.”

Hmmm!  Let me get this straight.  Jerry Lewis believes that if people with disabilities leave their houses to actively participate in their communities like everyone else, they should expect to get pity.

It seems to me that the “pity” attitude just reinforces the notion that people with disabilities should remain isolated, warehoused, and invisible.

This pathetic thinking is totally inconsistent with the nation’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law more than 10 years ago.  I’d love to tell Jerry Lewis, “Get into the 21st Century.  Start by reading the ADA.”

It was reported that Jerry Lewis raised $54.6 million dollars in last year’s MDA Telethon. Wow!  Just think of all the good things that MDA and similar charities could do with that money to improve the everyday quality of life for people with disabilities.

I’d like to see TV fund-raising raise money for people with disabilities in a new, exciting way. 

Imagine the telethon’s host fighting for more inclusion, cheering integration and advocating independence for people with disabilities.  Imagine Jerry Lewis using his celebrity status and TV time to promote the value of people with disabilities in our society.

Imagine the Telethon showing the everyday barriers that people with disabilities still face:  discrimination; unacceptably high unemployment rates; inability to find, retain, and pay for attendant care; inaccessible housing, buildings, and recreation; and the never-ending transportation nightmare.

Of course, I’m just dreaming how telethons could be, eschewing the reality of how telethons operate today.  Regrettably, I doubt that the MDA Telethon will ever change as long as Jerry Lewis is in front of the camera.

Most telethons don’t promote empowerment, justice, disability rights, or what’s fair.  Apparently there’s no money in that.

Wendy S. Brower is the Executive Director of the Disability Institute.  Gary Smolik contributed to this commentary.

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