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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.