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To many, Jerry Lewis was a hero. The Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon was held each Labor Day from 1966 to 2010 and raised around $2.5 billion through the telethons. But to many others, including a large contingent of people living with disabilities, his telethons were insensitive and self-serving. They said that Lewis treated the children he claimed to be helping with little respect, that he pitied those living with muscular dystrophy and that he used offensive language when describing them.

Jerry’s Orphans was a group of disability rights activists who organized actions against the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. Jerry’s Orphans believed that the annual telethon relied on “the pity approach” to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, undermining the message of the disability civil rights movement for millions of viewers each year.

Charities have used poster children to raise money since the 1930s because it works. People see a child with leg braces and they drop a coin in the jar or call in a pledge. While such charities may have good intentions and help the people they serve, the images they use to raise money reinforce outdated attitudes towards disability. When charities implore the public to “help find a cure,” they imply that the source of the problems that people with disabilities face is their medical conditions. Which means the answer to their problems is curing them. This is what is known as the “medical model” of disability. If disability is an illness to be cured then people with disabilities can’t be productive members of society until they no longer have disabilities. And that leads to the message that society doesn’t really need to support people with disabilities with things like accessible public transportation, integration in schools and equal employment protection. Yet these are the very gains made by the disability civil rights movement over the last thirty years.

The Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon may seem like a quaint relic and a harmless example of an outdated view of disability. But it was watched every year by millions of viewers around the world. Many of these viewers absorbed the message that people with disabilities want and need nothing more than a big charity to take care of them. Activists like Jerry’s Orphans believe that the message of the telethon seriously undermines the disability civil rights movement.

For more information about Jerry’s Orphans and the medical model versus the social (independent living) model:

(image description: Jerry Lewis is wearing a tuxedo standing in front of a sign that says, Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. He is making is opening remarks at the 25th anniversary of the 1990 Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon fundraiser in Los Angeles, California)

This image requires alt text, but the alt text is currently blank. Either add alt text or mark the image as decorative. Jerry Lewis makes his opening remarks at the 25th anniversary of the 1990 Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon fundraiser in Los Angeles.

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