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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Jerry Lewis and the Congressional Gold Medal

In the last 24 hours I have gotten a slew of email from people outraged that Jerry Lewis is being considered for the Congressional Gold Medal "in recognition of his outstanding service to the nation." The bill HR3035 was introduced in the House of Representatives on July 12, 2007. The bill is supported by politicians I refuse to name from New Jersey where Mr. Lewis was born and Nevada where he resides. The effort to award Mr. Lewis the Congressional Gold Medal prominently mentions his efforts to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Congress is correct, Mr. Lewis raised millions of dollars for the MDA. What is conveniently overlooked is the antiquated way in which he raised money via the MDS telethon. Mr. Lewis may have raised millions of dollars but disabled people consider him memorable for other reasons--specifically his obnoxious and bigoted remarks when disabled people began to complain about his fund raising methods that focused on pity. I remember being stunned when I heard him angrily state "Pity? If you don't want to be pitied because you're a cripple in a wheelchair stay in your house". This remark and many other similarly offensive comments helped galvanize disabled people to form Jerry's Orphans" who effectively protested and changed the way the MDA raised money. While Mr. Lewis was not forced out of the MDA and the organization continued to broadcast its telethon, a point was made by Jerry Orphans that had national implications. Disability and disabled people were not and should not be objects of pity. This represented a small but significant step forward in disability rights.

Frankly, I do not care if Jerry Lewis is awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Mr. Lewis' fame and fortune are a thing of the past. The college students I teach have no idea who Mr. Lewis is and many do not even know what a telethon is. To me, this lack of knowledge represents significant social progress. The pity once heaped upon disabled people is growing increasingly uncommon and many young people simply do not make the connection between pity and disability. While there is a long way to go toward true social, economic, and political equality for disabled people, this week I am hopeful about the future. One small and seemingly insignificant social exchange caused me to stop and think. I was on my way to the brand new library after class. The new building is finally complete and I was checking up on the required reading I had on reserve. As I went up the ramp to the only entrance two of my students appeared behind me as I opened the door. As I was going in one student asked me "Professor, how can a school build a new library without an electric door opener?" Before I could reply the other student remarked "Wow, this is really bad. You know the electric door is a must. What were the architects thinking? Did they take a stupid pill?"

The two students I was with instantly recognized the absence of electric doors as wrong and were surprised. I told them the lack of wheelchair access is a never ending problem even in new buildings like the library. They did not seem to understand what I was saying until I told them them all state universities had tight budgets and it was easy to cut out high priced items like electric doors. The veritable light bulb went off above their heads and they proceeded to tell me about all the short cuts that had been undertaken in the dorms and other building on campus I did not routinely go to in terms of wheelchair access. As our conversation tailed off it was clear they considered the lack of wheelchair access on campus was simply wrong--a wrong they had not noticed. The lack of awareness was not unusual but what I found encouraging was the assumption that they expected all buildings to be accessible. Too bad those that designed the new library do not think the same way. In my dreams one of the students I spoke with will become an architect, one that will design buildings that are accessible on paper and in reality.


Krishanna Magic said...

Great stuff!

Penny L. Richards said...

I can understand students born on the late 1980s/early 1990s not knowing anything about the telethon. Telethons only reached any significant audience when we were kids because there were only three or four channels, no VCR, no TiVo, no Wii, no internet. Nowadays, who would even notice if one station out of 500 was running a pitython for 24 hours? These kids grew up surfing right past the boring and the cheesy, and especially past infomercials and their like. There's always something else to watch, or do, thank goodness.

william Peace said...

Penny, your comments are 100% correct. College students simply have not seen or zoomed by telethons and all charity efforts that focus on pity. As a result, they do not understand the importance of pity historically. I wonder if this is the case with disabled college students as well. To me this is a sure sign we are truly living in a post ADA world that is radically different than the one I grew up in when discrimination was routine.

Carol Marfisi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carol Marfisi said...

It's easy for us to get tired and say "what the heck, we don't care who gets what auspicious honor." But in thinking about the damage Jerry Lewis has done throughout his 40 or 50 years of marketing pity and stereotyping, I can't help but feel grieved about the many people with disabilities who may have not even been granted job interviews because the recruitment officer at HR had imbedded in his or her psyche images of incapacity and who knows what kind of accompanying scenarios.

I also wonder about the young men and women who had to be tortured by listening to how tragic their lives were and how heroic their parents were for assuming this burden with, of course, a saint-like attitude. For God sakes, give me a break!

Why hasn't Lewis been banned from public media? I would say that, in many ways, he's more obscene than Howard Stern. At least everybody knows that Stern is somewhat of a jerk.

With the death of Jesse Helms, former Senator of NC, and earlier the death of Storm Thurmond, the public has, through media representation, glossed over how these two individuals put a halt to equal rights and respect for people of color. They say it’s wrong to hold a grudge, but I think it is even more unconscionable to forget, and possibly let, history repeat itself.

william Peace said...

Carol, Your points are well taken. I think such an award is meaningless but understand the larger impact hew had on others. I do however think those that are pushing for the award are woefully out of step with the times. You identify the big problem with the pity plow--if disabled people are perceived in need of charity an employer will never hire the same sort of person who they donate money to. This has undoubtedly undermined the accomplishments of disabled people and destroyed careers before they got started. It also is a past people would like to forget and think no longer exists. It is for this reason that I have found others get upset when I wear the t-shirt "Piss On Pity". It acknowledges the past and present others do not want to consider.

Carol Marfisi said...


I would like to hear more about your teaching experiences because after I wrote my post, I realized that when you were talking to your students, their naivete was so refreshing. Sometimes I think that we, old heads, keep bringing up these negative "nightmarish" images and experiences in teaching Disability history, and this makes me wonder if we're not inplanting ideas and attitudes that were never acquired by the younger generation. Maybe this is utopian thinking on my part. I would like to hear your thoughts.


william Peace said...

Carol, Disability discrimination is still rampant in secondary schools. What has changed is the jargon--mainstreaming is no longer an issue because disabled kids are sent to "resource rooms". When I mention this in class the students instantly recognize this as a form of segregation they never thought about. I can see this hits home as they can relate this to what they saw in high-school. Transportation is still inherently discriminatory--this students relate to immediately as well. When I combine the use of "resource rooms" and separate transportation comments made often include "no wonder we never saw disabled kids in school". The big change however is theoretical--they are taught disability discrimination is wrong. College students expect the world is accessible because they passed a law about it a long time ago. The issue they think has been solved and where I make an impact (I hope) is separating fact from fiction. That is what the law states and reality are two very different things. This lesson sinks home when I relate it to the social inequities they experience because of their age. Teaching college students is wonderfully rewarding as most students are open minded and willing to learn. Hence I am one of the lucky people that truly loves their job.