Lyndon Johnson was living in the White House the first time Jerry Lewis hosted a Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) Telethon. He continued to labor through those marathon sessions until this year, when new hosts led the shortened marathon to raise more money than at any previous telethon.
Over the years Lewis helped raise two and a half billion dollars for medical research for treatments and cures for the various forms of muscular dystrophy that affect about two percent of the population. That money has come at the expense of significant controversy.
According to Ability Magazine, Lewis has made some derogatory comments toward people with disabilities.
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."
Lewis has received criticism for fostering a sense of pity toward people with disabilities in hopes of raising more money. When challenged about it on CBS Sunday (May 20, 2001), Lewis replied, "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!"
Comments like these infuriated many people with disabilities including Laura Hershey, a former MDA poster child, who began organizing protests against the Lewis telethon. She writes, “To people with disabilities who want the right to LIVE INDEPENDENTLY and SPEAK FREELY, those are fighting words! Jerry Lewis thinks that pity is the ONLY appropriate response to disability, and that people with disabilities who don't want pity should stay hidden away. This Labor Day weekend, we will NOT stay in our houses! Instead we'll be out on the streets, challenging the Telethon's false portrayal of people with disabilities.” Hershey provides a variety of resources including a step-by-step guide to protesting the telethon and how to contact corporate sponsors of the telethon.
Maybe in 1966, fostering pity was an appropriate way to raise funds for people with disabilities. Maybe that was the best that could be done. Times have changed. Pity relegates people to be helpless victims of forces beyond their control. Pity keeps people stuck away from making any contribution to life or society.
Thanks, Jerry, for your work, but your methods harmed the all-important cause of changing attitudes toward people with disabilities, and we need to move on.