Taking the Chance to Fight Pity

In Everyone has one, Opinion by Kara Sheridan

As our nation pulls together a well-defined front of what is and what is not politically-correct, a line is drawn in an attempt to eliminate prejudicial statements and actions against minorities.

Many in the public are outraged if an athlete makes a racial slur during an interview or a celebrity insults the religion of a colleague.

Unfortunately, our country is not yet sensitive to the many negative messages swirling in our media, schools, and workplaces

about people with disabilities. Some disabled activists adopt the challenge to educate the public on our equality as citizens.

This includes confronting contradictory messages and doing whatever is necessary to stop their spread.

Because Jerry Lewis is well-known for hosting a yearly telethon that has raised millions in search of a cure for muscular dystrophy, some are surprised to hear that he has repeatedly spread disturbing messages about the very people he seeks to help.

His statements are hardly minor brushes with the intricacies of political correctness. The anger felt by activists can best be understood by reading the unapologetic words of Jerry Lewis himself.

In a September 2, 1990 Parade article Jerry Lewis remarked, “Lord knows nothing’s less dignified than sitting in a wheelchair.” and “…sitting in a steel prison….”
Lewis also stated in the Parade interview, “I know the courage it takes to get on the court with other cripples and play wheelchair basketball, but I’m not as fortunate as they are,” Lewis wrote, halfway into the piece.

He had so far managed to include nearly every term or concept offensive to disability rights advocates, and his next sentences would work in the others: “I’d like to play basketball like normal, healthy, vital and energetic people. I really don’t want the substitute. I just can’t half-do anything. When I sit back and think a little more rationally,” he continued, “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.”

During the 1991 MDA telethon, Jerry Lewis stated, “If you found out you had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, you might as well put a gun in your mouth.”

The next year during the 1992 MDA telethon, Lewis said, “My kids cannot go in the workplace. There’s nothing they can do.”

On the May 20, 2001 edition of CBS Sunday morning, Jerry Lewis responded to a correspondent’s questions about protesters by saying, “…Pity. You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house.” -Jerry Lewis

These are only a few of many degrading and completely reprehensible comments Lewis has spewed into the public year after year after year. Considering the degree of his disrespect of an entire culture in this nation, perhaps the most remarkable feature of his behavior is the fact that so few people outside the community of disabled advocates are aware of his attitude.

Most concerning to many is Jerry’s negative impact on the children with disabilities he encounters. Using children as the only real connection Lewis still has with the public, his depiction of them is humiliating and insulting. He makes it clear that without the almighty help of the able bodied, they will be nothing and at best-live “half lives.”

Several adults now involved with the activist group, “Jerry’s Orphans,” were former children featured on the insulting telethon. They remember the profound negative effect that being used as objects to pity had on their lives and they work to stop Jerry Lewis from spreading future messages of hate.

A documentary entitled, “The Kids Are All Right” sheds light on one of the group’s founders, Mike Ervin. An accompanying web site provides a synopsis and discussion questions to stimulate education in an attempt to dismantle the legacy of pity promoted by the telethon.

With headquarters in Chicago, “Jerry’s Orphans” sprung into action when Lewis visited the town to promote a new book. The group seated themselves in the front row. Most are in wheelchairs. When Jerry began to speak, the protesters began chanting and according to witnesses and reporters, Lewis had a melt down and stormed off the stage.

Before leaving he added to his collection of insults by calling one woman in a wheelchair a “living waterbed.” Audio from the incident confirms that Lewis also stated, “These people are going to walk out of those chairs and drive home tonight. I bought those chairs for them.”

Already angered by his helpless, hopeless portrayal of people with disabilities, this has infuriated advocates across the world. Not only does it imply ignorance that to drive, we must make the dramatic departure from our wheelchairs.

But worse, that even the assistive devices that offer increased independence are acts of charity from others. Of course Lewis couldn’t understand how the protesters who were demonstrating their empowerment, leadership, and satisfaction with their life could actually be…disabled.

No matter what your opinion may be on this issue, I urge you to listen to the audio for yourself. Hear Jerry Lewis dehumanize protesters by calling them names related to their physical appearance, hear others in the audience laugh, and hear him explain, “It’s very difficult to be compassionate and to talk about people who are mentally and physically crippled.”

So far, MDA has not issued a statement regarding what CBS has labeled as Jerry’s meltdown. It’s unfortunate that their lack of action to remove Lewis as the host of the telethon and transform its image of pity aligns this organization with the negativity associated with the worst threats to the advancement of people with disabilities and the conquering of our most difficult obstacles, social barriers, stereotypes, and attitudes that doubt our capability to live a happy, successful, and productive life.

The protesters reignited an interesting debate and hopefully more people will be educated on the true nature of Jerry’s work. Without the telethon, his role in the public eye is extremely limited. As MDA and Jerry Lewis remain silent, many people with disabilities are speaking their voices, especially across the web as commentaries, blogs, and magazine features are multiplying.

A few media outlets reported on the story following the event with limited information. It is unfortunate that several television news clip and newspaper articles state that no one from Jerry’s Orphans returned their calls.

To truly get a message across, protest planners must remember the public does not always have the baseline information that fueled their actions. The press could have been informed before, during, or after the event by a member of the group who felt comfortable articulating their platform.

Instead, it widened the door for much of the media coverage to insinuate the protesters were a group of crazed, probably bitter, people with disabilities who had no real purpose or goal other than to start trouble and, of course, get attention.

After all, we are all deprived of attention, right?

It makes perfect sense that people in
wheelchairs would desperately place themselves in the aim of insults based on personal appearance if it means a few minutes of human acknowledgement.

While we don’t see the logic in this, it seems that’s the way Lewis interpreted the situation and it is a critical flaw that the protesters did not ensure the media expressed their thought process.

Another interesting domino effect of this event has been the public’s responses and comments to online forums that allow feedback. Many can’t seem to understand that the fact that Jerry Lewis raises money for the almighty cure does not condone his words and actions.

Even more difficult for many people posting comments is to fathom that many of us would rather have the money go elsewhere to better the lives of people with disabilities.

Laura Hershey’s article published in a 1997 issue of Spectacle, does an excellent job explaining why many, including those with Muscular Dystrophy, do not hope for a cure when considering the cost-benefits of the extremely unlikely possibility.

She examines the history of cultural bias against people with disabilities and describes the desire for a cure in a very different light than it is portrayed within able-bodied mainstream media.

We enjoy our lives and the people we are in part because of our disabilities, not in spite of them.

People do not see aggressive attacks to our culture in nearly the same light as they do others. While many educated people claim to understand that someone with a physical disability does not usually have accompanying cognitive difficulties.

Yet, in several blogs and forums, the dispute quickly devolves to able bodied people stating that their debate opponent obviously also has a mental disability.

Ignoring the issue, they issue personal attacks that we must be insecure, hate our lives, and of course, enjoy the attention. While these messages are infuriating and it is difficult to read that so many around us still simply don’t see us as equal citizens deserving of the most basic respect, they are an important reminder of reality.

Most of our nation still needs education, a chance to change their mind. They, too, have been conditioned to view our lives as something to be pitied.

Taking direct action, like protesting, is an imperative first step to getting people to listen and hear our views. It must be followed up with a pity-free empowering message. The struggle does not end as the protesters are removed or depart from the event.

The chance to make a difference and change the views that infuriate us is offered again and again in each of our lives. It’s ours for the taking.