Every year, disability activists in the US protest the annual Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon because of the stereotypes and prejudice that Lewis and his annual escapade promote about people with muscular dystrophy and other disabled people. The Academy of Motion Pictures Art and Sciences has announced that it will award Lewis its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at next month’s Oscar awards ceremony. American disability activist and author Laura Hershey has written a petition which will be delivered to the Academy. An excerpt follows:
To: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
This petition has been launched to object to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ announcement that it will give Jerry Lewis its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscar Awards ceremony on February 22, 2009.
During his decades of hosting the Labor Day Telethon, Jerry Lewis has helped to perpetuate negative, stereotypical attitudes toward people with muscular dystrophy and other disabilities. Jerry Lewis and the Telethon actively promote pity as a fundraising strategy. Disabled people want RESPECT and RIGHTS, not pity and charity.
In 1990, Lewis wrote that if he had muscular dystrophy and had to use a wheelchair, he would “just have to learn to try to be good at being a half a person.” During the 1992 Telethon, he said that people with MD, whom he always insists on calling “my kids,” “cannot go into the workplace. There’s nothing they can do.” Comments like these have led disability activists and our allies to protest against Jerry Lewis. We’ve argued that he uses the Telethon to promote pity, a counterproductive emotion which undermines our social equality. Here’s how Lewis responded to the Telethon protesters during a 2001 television interview: “Pity? You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!”
To read the entire petition and sign it, go here: http://www.petitiononline.com/jlno2009/petition.html
Various disability theorists have written about the negative representations of disabled people that telethons produce and the discrimination and negative representations that they promote. For an excellent critique of the telethon industry, take a look at Paul Longmore’s Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability (Temple UP, 2003) http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1671_reg_print.html