As a person with muscular dystrophy, I’m relieved to know that this will be the first Labor Day weekend of my adult life without a muscular dystrophy telethon.
The Muscular Dystrophy Association announced in May that for the first time in decades, it will not organize a telethon to raise money. Comedian Jerry Lewis hosted the telethon for more than 40 years, and the show attained such a status that it was once broadcast for 21½ consecutive hours from coast to coast.
I spent many past Labor Day weekends joining other people with disabilities in protesting the telethon. We protested because we objected to the telethon’s damaging narrative that depicted disabled people as nothing more than helpless victims. It implied that as long as we remain disabled, we have nothing to offer or contribute, that our only hope was a cure. The telethon put forth the false and simplistic notion that the best way to serve disabled people is to contribute to behemoth charities that claim they will cure us.
I found this message to be not only insulting but also destructive. By pandering to pity, the telethon nurtured the very stigma of helplessness in which disability discrimination is rooted. It undermined the hard work of disability rights activists who have fought for decades to debunk that oppressive stigma. These activists correctly portray people with disabilities as a community engaged in a struggle for our civil and human rights. They put forth the message that disabled people have much to offer, and that it is everyone’s responsibility to create a society that welcomes and accommodates us as we are.
Jerry Lewis retired from hosting the telethon in 2011. The telethon became increasingly shorter in the years that followed. Now, it is gone. It is a sign of great progress that the pity sales pitch no longer resonates.
Mike Ervin is a Chicago-based writer and a disability-rights activist with ADAPT (www.adapt.org), a national disabilities-rights organization. He wrote this article for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with the Progressive magazine. The article was distributed by Tribune News Service.