The reaction to Lewis death is twofold: the vast majority acknowledge his supposed brilliance, especially of the French, and his great influence in the comedy world. Another smaller group of people did not mourn his passing. For people with a disability, Lewis was openly despised. The reasons for this are not complex. Lewis hated people with a disability. That is he hated any person with a disability that had a sentient thought and questioned Lewis and his charitable work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Lewis raised hundreds of millions of dollars to "fight" MD. Despite this, he caused far more harm to the lives of people with a disability. None of this is news to anyone with a passing interest in disability rights. Others far more articulate people have written about Lewis: Ben Mattlin, Mike Ervin and his sister Cris Matthews, Harriet Mcbride Johnson, Laura Hershey, and many others.
Lewis hatred of people with a disability was tied up in a mix of fear, pity, stigma, ignorance, and the belief he was doing good. The good he was doing was simple: he was going to raise money for the less fortunate. Who were the most unfortunate human being at the time Lewis was active? Children with disabilities who quickly became "Jerry's Kids". The MDA counted on Jerry Lewis to be a cash cow they happily embraced. Jerry Lewis used the MDA to demonstrate what a humanitarian he was. People that knew nothing about disability sucked up the saccharine sweet nectar via demeaning telethons while people with a disability simmered in silence. Jerry's Kids were made to look pathetic and pitiable--any easy thing to do prior to the idea people people with a disability had rights and were human beings. As Stephen Kuusisto wrote a days ago:
Lewis saw disability as most Americans of his time did—as an implacable thief, a menacing, unnameable dread. When Martin and Lewis began in showbiz the disabled were not generally out in public. Polio victims were kept out of sight. Any disabling condition was understood as a dreadful thing. Link: https://stephenkuusisto.com/2017/08/21/jerry-lewis-and-the-crippler/
Lewis association with the MDA came to an awkward and abrupt end in 2010. I don't know the inside story behind Lewis ouster but I sure would like to. What I do know is that people with a disability started striking back at Lewis in the late 1980s. The best description of an incipient disability based critique of Lewis can be found in Harriet Mcbride's Johnson's memoir Too Late to Die Young. Her chapter, "Honk if You Hate Telethons" is both funny and thought provoking.
In 1990 the flood gates of criticism flooded open after Lewis infamous article in Parade Magazine entitled "If I had Muscular Dystrophy". Link to reproduction of the article: http://www.cripcommentary.com/parade.html Even today the article is shockingly mean--it was vicious for no reason. Two quotes should suffice to get a sense of the deep anger and bigotry Lewis felt:
Being in a wheelchair makes you feel like everyone is whispering about you. I know there are many who couldn't care less and many who are so indifferent that it hurts -- not a great deal, but enough to notice.
Lewis truly felt children and adults with disabilities were charity cases. They had no right to expect equality. The constructed environment was not accessible. This was just the way it is and any accommodations were made out of the goodness of the non-disabled--the normal, healthy vital and energetic people. People with a disability were not human in Lewis estimation. They were trotted out and put on display once a year so that others, non disabled others, could feel better about themselves.
When I think of Jerry Lewis, I remember an angry difficult man. In 2016 he gave a reporter the most painful interview I can recall ever watching:
I am breaking an old taboo--speaking ill of the dead. I am however only speaking about one side of the man. My words are not about Lewis alone but of an era when all people with a disability had no rights. We people with a disability could not attend public school, get on a bus, train or plane. We were warehoused in institutions like the infamous Willowbrook Institution. The history of people with a disability is only just now being taught at some universities. American history and disability history are synonymous but few books like Kim E. Nielsen's A Disability History of the United States exist. Rather than harp on what a rotten person Jerry Lewis was, I instead think of him as a symbol of an era that is thankfully a thing of the past. A past that is grim and I mourn for an untold number of lives that were needlessly compromised. Jerry Lewis did not live in a vacuum. Millions of people gave money to the the MDA who likely shared the same views of disability that Lewis did. It is my hope we live in a more enlightened era but I find that impossible to believe after reading an article in Mother Jones about the future of genetically engineered children. The invention of CRISPR, a tool that allows scientists to change DNA sequences within a cell and hence edit the human genome could be used to eradicate a host of conditions such as Huntington Disease and Tay Sachs. Link:http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/08/a-future-of-genetically-engineered-children-is-closer-than-youd-think/ My first thought of course is if we eliminate a condition are we eliminating a people. That thought makes me shake in fear. People with a disability can be eliminated before they are born. A Gattica like existence is around the corner and I know people like me might no longer exist.