Who's Crying Now?
By Michael Volkman and Kelli Viti
The telethon's a sore subject with the Disability Nation. The September/October Ragged Edge had more ink on this because telethons are still with us. This article suggested that recent trends in telethon production and content could augur the demise of our worst public relations enemy. Maybe, maybe not.
An unnamed source at UCPA admitted in the article that they changed their focus from a nationally televised pityfest to a locally oriented production. Here in Albany, which has a television audience of about 500,000, the local UCP affiliate does not even use the UCP name. They call themselves the "Center for the Disabled." They have two gigantic campuses with segregated schools serving the entire region, diagnostic services, rehabilitation programs, sheltered workshops, community residences, and a fleet of buses. Naturally, they are well connected politically. My pet name for them is the Center for the Disregarded.
For over a decade, their pityfest has been a locally produced affair. It's unwatchable. One telethon Sunday afternoon while channel surfing, I zapped to the telethon and found Linda, my upstairs neighbor, singing. The camera framed her in a half-shot. Linda is a secure, quiet, responsible person, a mother with a good sense of humor, but the home viewer who does not know Linda saw a young, overweight, African-American with thick glasses sitting in a motorized wheelchair, and heard a voice that I know to be naturally slow and shaky but which sounded to viewers almost like crying. I couldn't believe they'd do that to her. She didn't deserve to be exploited and used like that.
I sing in bands locally. A few years ago, friend invited me to tag along with his band as they did the telethon for the Center for the Disabled. He assumed I'd be pleased he was doing this wonderful thing. I told him I had no interest in going to a telethon, and told him why. "You shouldn't jump to conclusions if you've never seen it for yourself," he told me. Like most, he'd grown up seeing the telethon as a good thing. It's impossible to undo years of brainwashing in five minutes. I'd let him see for himself.
We were greeted at the door by a clown who made a balloon dog and shoved it at me.
"HIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!" she said, as if I were three years old.
On this fateful day, my friend's lead singer got sick. I was there; I knew the song. I could fill in for her.
The producers said nothing at first but smiled sweetly when they saw me. I decided to warm up with "Shaky Ground," a very muddy blues song with a nasty funk. When they could hear that I was a real singer, they took notice.
I would not be allowed to perform with the band, they told my friend; I did not have a contract to perform. The band did have a contract; nothing in the contract specified who was considered to be a member of the band. The real problem was that I have CP and use a chair. People like this were supposed to be seen as the Center's "clients" -- like Linda -- not the "real" performers. I didn't fit their image. I looked like a singer in a band, not like a Tiny Tim or a Jerry's Kid.
My friend was so outraged that he packed up the band and vowed never to return.
Maybe I should have drooled.
In the article, Dr. Paul Longmore observes that the messages change as the protesting waxes and wanes.
I was amazed and happy when the Jerry show, a few years ago, spent time promoting the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disability rights got almost equal time with the crying parents.
Where was all that this year? Where was the disabled Attorney General from Utah? Where was the disabled disc jockey from Indiana? They're not on the show anymore.
A mind is a terrible thing to close. With his mind and with the energy he has at his age, Jerry Lewis could use his high-profile visibility to do great things for us. If he would only listen. If he would do what any good showman does and update the act.
On Labor Day 1996, as the clock on my wall showed 2:56 p.m. eastern time, another sappy family video ends; the camera cuts to Jerry, who looks right at it and says, "I want to say something right now to seven morons in Chicago."
My jaw drops. He means Mike Ervin, Cris Mathews et. al. He points at the toteboard: "Is that pity, or is that compassion?" At that moment I proclaim for myself the distinguished title of Moron.
Why would Lewis, with his ability to command Fortune 500 executives to fork over millions of dollars and to get free nationwide television time, stoop to that level? He doesn't have to even dignify us with a response; he does not have to acknowledge our existence. We are nothing to him.
Or are we?
Fundraisers often insist the crying is necessary to get people to phone in a pledge, but that's nonsense. Each year's totals are higher than the previous year, even when they did all the ADA promotion.
This year Jerry was still taking digs at us, but being more diplomatic. This time it was during the 11 o'clock hour. "There is a big difference between pity and compassion," he said. "There are some naysayers out there and some people who just don't get it." There was no mention of the ADA.
I think I'll stay a Moron.
These observations are meant to stir discussion. What's happening in other cities? Is it better or worse? Does anybody else agree that telethons are indeed dying? Or are the rumors of such a demise greatly exaggerated?
Could I hear a TYMPANI?!
Michael Volkman is a consultant, writer and self-directing Moron in Albany, New York. Kelli Viti is a singer and actor who is discovering at age 29 that she forgot to be handicapped.
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