Friday, August 5, 2011

"Pity the Nutty Professor"

I wrote an essay with that title many years ago, one about Jerry Lewis, the annual MDA Telethon, and its (his) modus operandi.

Disability rights activists won't have Jerry to kick around any longer. Yesterday's headlines read, in one form or another like this from the Los Angeles Times
Jerry Lewis ousted as MDA telethon host
After decades with the Muscular Dystrophy Assn., Jerry Lewis is dropped as the telethon's host and the group's national chairman. Fellow comedians decry the mysterious ouster.
Many people with disabilities who have dealt with Jerry personally, or have been one of "Jerry's Kids," are rejoicing. There is no way to sugar coat it: many people with disabilities bear animus toward Lewis.

He may be a good man, a flawed man, like the rest of us. Much of what is written about him shows him as prickly, self-absorbed, arrogant. But he raised $2.5 billion dollars.

But Lewis has always been about pity -- the idea that a crippling disease (or by extension, injury) somehow lessens one's value, that the only valid response is a useless emotion that serves no one. From the same Los Angeles Times piece:
The notion of sick children, experts said, contradicted the current reality in which patients lead full lives into their 30s and even beyond. "When the disease wasn't treatable, it was sadness and poster children," said M. Carrie Miceli, co-director of the Center for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at UCLA. "The new image is not as pitiful as much as empowering."
And Lewis never moved beyond that mindset. Even a cursory reading of many writers on disability will uncover dozens of references to Lewis' patronizing attitude toward people with disabilities.

In some way, however, I am sorry to see him go -- or be pushed off-stage -- now. I would have preferred that he had seen the light, undergone a conversion of perception, and begin to speak out in a way that illustrated that a human being is not to be less valued because of a disability. 

It would have been a happy ending.

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