ragged edge magazine online



Issue 5
September, 2001


About the Telethon . . .



At least they got my name right

By Ross Sweat

The CBS program "Sunday Morning" is a ritual at our house. We even watch when the subject is distasteful, as it was when the show profiled Jerry Lewis..

CBS Sunday Morning read Ross Sweat's comment about Jerry Lewis on the air . . . part of it, anyway

I've used a wheelchair for over 35 years, and I got tired of Jerry Lewis a long time ago. I don't watch his movies, and I avoid TV programs that include him, especially that annual celebrity dip into the murky waters of pity and degradation known as the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. When we saw that Jerry Lewis was to be the subject of a segment, my wife and I steeled ourselves to be ready for anything. We were expecting heaping buckets of the gooey praise that America's favorite fund-raiser usually gets from the media.

To our surprise, the segment wasn't bad. It was mostly about his comedy and his career. His feel-good, do-good humanitarianism was being downplayed and I was even starting to have twinges of guilt that I'd let my personal dislike for his fundraising techniques stop me from recognizing his genius as an entertainer.

Then the interviewer moved onto the Telethon, and Jerry Lewis became . . . well, Jerry Lewis, the one I had expected all along.

"I'm telling people about a child in trouble! If it's pity, we'll get some money. I'm just giving you facts! Pity? [If] you don't want to be pitied because you're a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in yer house!"

The only shock was that he said it out loud, and to a network television audience. I've known for years what he thinks -- I just never thought he would be so blatant about it. I didn't even get angry. I laughed, surprised at his honesty.

I truly expected CBS to publicly distance itself from Lewis' statement. But the next edition of Sunday Morning aired without mention of Lewis or his comment. CBS's failure to at least acknowledge the political incorrectness of such a statement by a public figure angered me. And over the last week, his statement had worked on me as well: I had begun to feel personally assaulted and insulted by Lewis.

I resolved to tell CBS about it.

I sent them an email message. "Surely," I wrote, " you've been inundated with messages on Mr. Lewis' ignorance and arrogance when he said, in effect, that people with disabilities are only fit for pity if they dare go out in public. Sure, you've apologized, sort of, and so has Jerry Lewis, although not publicly. Why don't you atone for your failure to question his statement at the time by doing a story on the opposition to him that has existed for years prior to the next Telethon? Really, it would be simple justice, and the opposition has a point-of-view and a story to tell."

I'd told them they were wrong. I hoped my message would be one of so many that they'd have to respond. I thought my suggestion about giving those who oppose the methods of the Telethon an equal chance to speak had real merit, and I felt the tone of my message was reasonable.

A couple of weeks passed. One Saturday afternoon in late June, a staffer from CBS News Sunday Morning called: my email message would be read on the next day's program. How did I pronounce my name? they asked. "Like perspiration," they were told.

I called my mother-in-law and a friend to brag before the rational part of my nature supplied that old feeling: "how-they-gonna-get-me-this-time"? What had I said, exactly? How many ways could it be used against me? I re-read the email message I'd sent and decided not to send it on to all my friends: If the meaning of my message was about to be perverted, I'd just as soon as few of my friends saw it as possible.

That next morning, when the moment came, Charles Osgood said my name and identified my hometown with barely a hitch. Then, he read most of the first sentence of my message. It served only as a lead-in to that "some-of-my-best-friends-are-crips-and-I-respect-them-very-much" apology that I assumed MDA had put out for their Superstar.

It happened so fast that my reaction was to question exactly what I had heard. Obviously, someone at CBS had liked my paraphrase of Lewis' original tirade, even though they had Osgood explain that it wasn't exactly what Jerry said.

I was disappointed that they'd ignored my real message. I guessed my suggestion that the other side of the story deserved an airing wouldn't be explored. Maybe I should just be satisfied that my words were used as the counter-culture counterpoint to the clichˇs of his "apology".

Except -- I'm not satisfied.. Being used by CBS to show that not everyone loves Jerry just isn't enough. I keep looking for some deeper truth.

Part of it is that thing about "Jerry's Kids." That name has always attached itself to everyone who uses a wheelchair. The focus of the Telethon is the wheelchairs and the people in them who are described over and over again as "Jerry's Kids." One, I remember from years ago, was a man in his 50's, the vice president of an airline, and one of "Jerry's Kids."

The Jerry Lewis interview on CBS Sunday Morning had really been about a 9-year-old boy in an old man's body. Maybe it was the 9-year-old Jerry Lewis who had said, ". . . cripple in a wheelchair . . .". Maybe it was the child in the role of angry parent, reacting harshly to "his kids" who wouldn't understand and act "right" in light of the righteousness of his intent. It just might have been, too, that his outburst had little to do with wheelchairs, and a lot to do with the pettiness of a perpetual child.

The actions of both CBS and Jerry Lewis reflect the kind of attitudes that have always been common in mainstream society. These attitudes are the source of the ancient tradition of giving alms to the "unfortunate ones" on the street corner or at the city gates.

Muscular dystrophy -- or any other condition that results in visible signs of functional limitation, like using a wheelchair -- is scary. The donations given in response to the frightening reality that such things can happen to anyone are intended to appease the fates and buy protection. Like the ceremonial killing of the fatted calf upon the altar, it is intended to purchase insurance against such a thing happening to us.

The pity parade Jerry Lewis leads depends on such fears for its very existence. Being the leader of the parade does not exempt him from these emotions. It may be that his own fear led him to participate in the Telethon in the first place, and now keeps him performing his role in it. Certainly, something compulsive and unhealthy must have been behind that unprovoked attack Lewis made on that unforgettable "Sunday Morning" against those whose only crime is using wheelchairs.

We wheelchair users know something that Jerry Lewis and the rest of the nondisabled world need to learn: The idea that wheelchairs are confining and that those who use them are "bound" to them is wrong. We are liberated by them, loosed from confinement. With wheels under us, with jobs to pay our way, we can do wonders.

We must find a way to get Jerry Lewis and those who share his point of view to see this truth.

Ross Sweat, former director of the New Mexico Dept. of Vocational Rehabilitation, teaches psychology at the College of the Southwest in Hobbs, New Mexico

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