Jerry Lewis, a veteran comedian and host of the annual Labor Day telethon that raises money for research into cures for muscular dystrophy, is scheduled to be honored with a special award at this year’s Oscar ceremony. It’s called the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and is intended to honor those who make great charitable contributions. In other words, he’s mainly being honored for his annual and very public involvement with the telethon.
The problem is that the telethon promotes extremely dangerous stereotypes about people disabilities as being worthy only of our pity, and promotes a “cure” as the only way to help people with muscular dystrophy (instead of, you know, real services and changes to our very ableist world). And as it seems kind of strange and wildly offensive that someone might receive a humanitarian award after having referred to the people he “helps” as not fully human, the disability rights community is protesting the choice.
To: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
This petition has been launched to object to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ announcement that it will give Jerry Lewis its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscar Awards ceremony on February 22, 2009.
During his decades of hosting the Labor Day Telethon, Jerry Lewis has helped to perpetuate negative, stereotypical attitudes toward people with muscular dystrophy and other disabilities. Jerry Lewis and the Telethon actively promote pity as a fundraising strategy. Disabled people want RESPECT and RIGHTS, not pity and charity.
In 1990, Lewis wrote that if he had muscular dystrophy and had to use a wheelchair, he would “just have to learn to try to be good at being a half a person.” During the 1992 Telethon, he said that people with MD, whom he always insists on calling “my kids,” “cannot go into the workplace. There’s nothing they can do.” Comments like these have led disability activists and our allies to protest against Jerry Lewis. We’ve argued that he uses the Telethon to promote pity, a counterproductive emotion which undermines our social equality. Here’s how Lewis responded to the Telethon protesters during a 2001 television interview: “Pity? You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!”
And in case saying that people with muscular dystrophy are “half people” and that people with disabilities who don’t want Lewis’s oh so good intentioned pity ought to not ever go outside somehow isn’t quite enough for you (and I think rather lowly of you if it’s not), the man is also a raging homophobe and misogynist. And that would, on its own, be incredibly reasonable grounds on which to protest this award. However, right now the protests on gay rights grounds are getting way more media attention, despite the fact that our brothers and sisters with disabilities (of all sexual orientations) are the ones being affected most deeply, and their lives and experiences most deeply discounted. After all, Lewis is not being honored for his homophobic (and misogynistic) comments, but he is being directly and explicitly honored for his highly ableist and patronizing “work.”
I think we should all be joining together to protest this award — and for the reasons above, we ought to be doing it on the disability rights community’s terms.