Sunday, March 1, 2009

An Op/Ed Appearing in the Springfield (MO) News-Leader

Kate Winslet finally received her Oscar last week, but hometown hero Brad Pitt left empty-handed.

But as a person with a disability, what interested me occurred beyond the glare of the flashbulbs and off the red carpet. A few days prior to the ceremonies, 50 disability activists protested outside the Kodak Theater and the offices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, taking to the streets because of AMPAS' decision to award the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars to entertainer Jerry Lewis.

We all know about Jerry and the Labor Day telethon. Lewis has been MDA's national chairman since 1952 and hosted the event since 1966, raising between $1 and $2 billion according to various sources.

Why then the protests? Many in the disability rights movement are frustrated because Lewis refuses to listen to the legitimate concerns of people with disabilities. And so Lewis and the annual telethon continue to trade on the pity factor, relying on maudlin pleas and depressing scenarios involving "Jerry's kids."

The comedian has sycophants. As word of the Oscar protest spread, activists were called "bitter," "ungrateful" and "pawns."

That attitude mimics one of Jerry's own responses to criticism. "You don't want to be pitied because you're a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!"

But as the protest progressed, the Oscar people took notice. A group called "The Trouble with Jerry" ultimately received a letter from "Academy director Bruce Davis (who) compared Lewis' insulting, outdated attitudes to 'some scratches in the paint job ... of a Lamborghini.'"

I'm not so sure. Of course, at 82, Lewis was born into the Model T generation, a time when people with disabilities were "shut-ins" or "invalids." The problem is that he's still trapped by those antiquated attitudes.

"Money is not a substitute for respect," a friend said when I mentioned my deep resentment of Lewis and his annual pity party.

My friend's words encapsulate my attitude. Kindness and concern expressed as charity have a valued place in our world, but help should be offered out of empathy and good will, and those helped should not be demeaned, marginalized and patronized.

Lewis once wrote that someone with a disability is but "a half a person," which is an illustration of why all the good Lewis has done for the MDA is shadowed by his inability to listen and learn.

Jerry Lewis is blind to the ugliness of pity, and he remains deaf when we tell him about the creativity and the accomplishments of people with disabilities.

I have used a wheelchair for 50 years, a device Lewis characterizes as a "steel prison." I do not feel imprisoned by my wheelchair. I feel liberated. I wish Jerry Lewis was not imprisoned by his prejudice. And I believe an epiphany on his part about respect, equality, access and accommodation would be worth far more than billions of dollars.

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