'Jerry's Kids' or 'Jerry's Orphans'?

September 05, 1992

The self-image and the public image of disabled persons is undergoing considerable change, with accelerated efforts to mainstream them in the workplace, housing and schools. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires accessibility and nondiscrimination in public places and employment. Capable/equal is in. Helpless/pitiful is out.

Then there's Jerry Lewis' Labor Day telethon for muscular dystrophy, which has raised a half-billion dollars for research and treatment in 27 years of tugging at the nation's heartstrings for "Jerry's Kids." It's the most successful fund-raiser on TV. But critics claim the broadcast promotes an outdated, dispiriting image of the disabled as childlike and tragic victims dependent on charity, incapable of equal participation in society.

This year's nationwide broadcast will draw protesters, including disabled former telethon participants calling themselves "Jerry's Orphans." They want the program to focus on improving disabled people's lives and to portray disability as a normal part of life, with less emphasis on children fighting for survival because of the paternalistic response that engenders toward disabled adults.

Supporters of the telethon respond that critics mistake compassion for pity, that profiles of disabled adults with productive lives are portrayed. Funds raised don't just go to children, or to research; they also buy equipment to help adults with the crippling neuromuscular diseases. Audits show fund-raising overhead costs are very low.

The biggest problem, protesters charge, is that Mr. Lewis does not understand the disabled population today. They want him off the air. It's true he has become a sentimental anachronism, a performer long absent from the public spotlight except for this telethon, a kind of Bert Parks for MD. The one-time funny man's scripted river of tears and limp bow tie as the pledge-a-thon nears an end are a source of unintended amusement. It's equally true that no one else could do the telethon as well.

A similar controversy swirls around the Paralyzed Veterans of America, which hired an able-bodied associate sports director last year -- and then fired him because he was not disabled. He has sued the group for discrimination, claiming it should not matter whether a capable employee is in a wheelchair. The veterans organization says the high-visibility job requires a disabled person to project the right public image.

These controversies reflect a political maturing of the disabled community, within which there are different viewpoints. But disadvantaged groups ultimately realize that they cannot have it both ways: staking a legitimate claim to true equality means abandoning claims to special treatment.

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