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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Protest Jerry Lewis

Piss on Pity is a great line I wish I came up with. It is somewhat startling, certainly subversive, and makes people think. For those familiar with disability rights, it has instant recognition. I smile every time I read those three words and have confidence in whoever utters them or dares to wear a T-shirt with the words boldly printed on the front. One of the people I think of when I see Piss on Pity or see a particularly effective disability rights protest is Laura Hershey. Hershey is an effective disability rights activist, speaker, and writer. I have never met her but have always been impressed with her writing. Hershey is my age and was a poster child for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. This fact has come back to haunt Jerry Lewis and the MDA that continue to raise money based on the basest form of pity. As reported by BA Haller, Hershey has a new Facebook group: Tell Oscar--NO Humanitarian Award for Jerry Lewis! Hershey words strike a cord with every person that supports disability rights. She is not a woman who minces words. Here are two great quotes from Facebook:

"Disabled people want RESPECT and RIGHTS, not pity and charity".

"On February 22, 2009, we won't be staying in our houses watching the Academy Awards. We'll be publicly objecting to this award. We'll be defending our own humanity against this so-called humanitarian.

I wish I could attend this protest. From the East Coast I will support Hershey and all those those that are willing to assert their civil rights and oppose the counterproductive MDA telethon. Jerry Lewis may raise a lot of money but it is all tainted--it is dirty money. Pity as utilized by Jerry Lewis and the MDA undermine four decades of legislation designed to protect the civil rights of disabled people. Social equality is what disability activists such as Hershey have strove for. It is what I fight for every time I do not want to leave my home because I fear being discriminated against. No amount of money Jerry Lewis raises is worth the damage he causes. Hershey and thousands of others are not "Jerry's kids", objects of pity. These men and women are human beings, born with and entitled to the same civil rights as any other American. Jerry Lewis does not merit a humanitarian award but rather a swift kick in the ass.

Monday, December 15, 2008

David Paterson, SNL, Humor and Disability

Based on my reading of various newspapers and blogs there are plenty of people angry about the SNL skit that mocked David Paterson. As always, the local newspaper headlines about Paterson are too clever for me, for example the NY Post headline "Paterson in a Blind Rage over SNL Skit", was misleading. For those that missed SNL, the skit in question was part of the "Weekend Update" segment and featured Fred Armisen as David Paterson. Armisen imitated Paterson's wandering eye, voice, unassuming presence and admitted, though dated, use of drugs and extra marital affairs. All this is fair game and as always SNL made good use of this stock political fodder. But this was not enough for SNL. No they had to take standard political comedy to another level and mock Paterson's blindness. To me, SNL crossed the line when they had Armisen unable to orient himself to the camera location before he spoke, hold a chart upside down, and then once the skit was over wander aimlessly around the set. None of this was funny. This was humor based on hopelessly antiquated stereotypes about blind people. If I were blind, I would have been deeply offended.

I take exception to the SNL skit for good reason. Go ahead and make fun of Paterson--he is not immune from political satire. In fact, Paterson effectively uses humor in many of his speeches and he is known for being an affable sort of person. This has served him well as he is the polar opposite of his intense predecessor Eliot Spitzer whose bellicosity was legendary. The point here is that Paterson can not only take a joke and deliver one as well. What SNL did had little to do with humor and much to do with ridicule and disability based bigotry. The SNL skit premise was that Paterson was not competent because he was blind. By extension, SNL assumes viewers consider all blind people to be incompetent as well--lost wandering souls in need of assistance. How can blind people like Paterson hold a job? How can a blind person be competent? What comes first in asking these questions: blindness. The disability, that is a physical deficit, is foremost in the minds of viewers and the writers of SNL. This is a problem and where SNL truly failed. SNL is better than stock humor; they are supposed to take satire to the next level. Thus I see the SNL skit as a double failure because they relied on bigotry based humor and missed a golden opportunity to highlight profound flaws in our culture that prevent disabled people from such ordinary things as employment, access to mass transportation, and routine social interaction. Surely the writers of SNL know that 70% of all blind people are unemployed. I am equally sure the writers of SNL read many of the headlines and articles about Paterson when he was named governor and are aware he has repeatedly demonstrated his competence.

The above leads me to ask why did SNL take the easy way out and ridicule a man for a physical deficit when there were so many other possibilities? Perhaps Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation for the Blind, is correct when he points out that SNL has a long history of mocking the blind. When I first read this I was skeptical but then thought back to some of Eddie Murphy's mean spirited impressions of Stevie Wonder. This in turn led me to think that not much has changed in the last twenty years when it comes to disability humor. It is socially acceptable to mock people with a disability on TV, in films, and at school. The incompetence of disabled people is inherently funny and I am forced to agree with Danielsen that some things need to be taken a little more seriously. I am not opposed to humor but as Danielsen pointed out "When you have a perception problem like we have..." and "70% unemployment its not because we can't work. Obviously the governor of New York is blind, and he's doing the job. Whenever you have a portrayal that calls the basic capacity of blind people into question that's a potential problem". Yes, it is a problem and it is not one bit funny. Do not take my words out of context: I am not humorless. Humor has place in society and can be an effective means of social change. Yet humor can also reinforce baseless prejudice and that is exactly what the SNL skit did.