This entry originally appeared on my disability blog, I hate stairs.
As a person with a neuromuscular disease similar to muscular dystrophy, I know who my daddy is, and that’s Jerry Lewis.
Jerry, who was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award during the Oscars Sunday, is one of the most well known comedians in the world and arguably the best. More important than the laughs he created is the impact he has made on countless children and adults with muscular dystrophy, raising $800 million through his famous Labor Day telethons and, in his own way, adopting kids with this disease as his own. “Jerry’s kids” is a popular poster slogan used for his fundraising endeavors.
You may have known all this about the man, but perhaps you didn’t know there is a cancer in the disability community that shamelessly lambasts Jerry for his great achievements.
I was proud of Jerry as he accepted a deserved award Sunday. But soon after his speech, my brother pointed me to an online group of disabled people who protested the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ choice to bestow the award on Jerry.
On the group’s Web site, thetroublewithjerry.net, there is a petition that explains, “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.”
Such disdain for Jerry, as it happens, is nothing new. The protest of his Oscars award is the most recent chapter in a two-decade-long rebuke of the film genius and fundraising extraordinaire by some people in the disability community. On the Web site of the group mentioned above, you can view a 1993 Vanity Fair character attack piece on Jerry by a lousy journalist named Leslie Bennetts. The article now practically constitutes the bible of this segment of the disability community, along with a letter Jerry wrote for Parade magazine in 1990 that supposedly stereotypes people with muscular dystrophy.
Perhaps you can imagine the horror and anger boiling inside the deepest corners of my soul upon seeing such blasphemous material. I thought, “What kind of lowlifes would take everything an ardent supporter has done for them for more than 50 years and insult him with it when he’s old and feeble?”
In a video on the Web site, Sarah Watkins, a protester at Sunday’s Academy Awards, bemoans Jerry rather harshly.
“He has raised millions of dollars using negative stereotypes about people with disabilities,” she said. “He said that we can’t get out into the workplace, that we can’t hold down jobs.”
In the background of the video, you can hear another starry-eyed protestor chanting, “Self respect is here to stay.”
Let me explain as briefly as I can the blatant stupidity of these individuals. While they correctly focus less on people with muscular dystrophy as people with diseases and more on people with muscular dystrophy as a minority group deserving of civil rights and inclusion, they forget that muscular dystrophy is still a disease, that it is a bad thing, that it is almost always fatal.
That being said, the conglomeration of Jerry quotes on which the complainers’ argument is based is understandable when taken into context and when the person analyzing those quotes is not inebriated with dumbed down, romantic civil rights rhetoric.
For instance, when Jerry said people with muscular dystrophy couldn’t go into the workplace, he is largely correct. For one thing, the simple fact of having significant physical limitations makes it harder to do any job. However, above and beyond this point, what I think Jerry was probably trying to get at the most is that, despite the fact that people with muscular dystrophy are just as skilled as anyone else, it can be hard to get an education, much less find a job, in a society with employers who aren’t always open to people with disabilities. I’ve seen it happen to others, and I must admit I sometimes worry that when I get out of school, I’d be better off staying fully on Medicaid than trying to make something of myself.
As a matter of fact, the American Community Survey produced by the U.S. Census Bureau shows citizens with disabilities have a 38 percent higher unemployment rate than citizens with no disabilities.
I should also explain the letter (“If I Had Muscular Dystrophy”) Jerry wrote to Parade in 1990, a letter that continues to receive so much ungrateful feedback. In that masterpiece, Jerry explained dramatically and shockingly accurately for a non-disabled person the indignities of growing up with a genetic defect. Jerry wrote the letter as if he had muscular dystrophy in order to convey the indignities of “everyday living” like taking a shower, eating or traveling. And make no mistake that these things are indignities. I know personally that having your clothes stripped off by a new attendant you met just five seconds ago isn’t fun, although it’s necessary.
Jerry also painstakingly presents the frustration people with muscular dystrophy feel when, no matter how accessible, society never seems to be accessible enough. It’s never enough. There is always something you can’t do, and when you’re a child, there are a million ways to be humiliated in school.
Jerry said children in school can be “mean, cruel and just plain inhuman because they find pleasure in having ‘fun’ at someone else’s expense.”
I can attest to the accuracy of that, although I was lucky enough to miss out on the bullying some of my friends went through. One or two of them were even ignored by high schools that made them wait until they got home to their mommies every day to take a piss because there was no one willing to assist them.
I say all of this to show the terrible aspects of having a neuromuscular disease, but I’m not saying I hate life, that people with disabilities should be negative or that America isn’t one of the most accessible countries on Earth. I wouldn’t take anything back in my life up to this point, but that doesn’t mean neuromuscular diseases aren’t a curse, just like any other illness or catastrophe that may befall a humanity cast out to till the ground. I’m just thankful it’s one of the only things I have to worry about in my overall great life.
So when Jerry calls a wheelchair a “steel imprisonment” and says fully human children with muscular dystrophy “have to learn to try to be good at being a half a person,” he is speaking the truth, although it might not jive well with the young ears of the most modern disabled generation. That generation has, in fact, benefitted from more advanced technology and medicine than what people had to work with in 1949 when Jerry began his advocacy. At least acknowledging this generational barrier should put Jerry’s language in perspective.
Some have lost sight of Jerry’s goal, which is to raise enough funds to find a cure. I beg these lunatics to let the man do his work.
As the well spoken Jerry once told the Vanity Fair writer, “I’ve raised one billion three hundred million dollars. These 19 people don’t want me to do that. They want me to stop now? F—- them. Do it in caps. F—- THEM.”