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Disability History: New York Times opinion piece on MDA telethon by Evan Kemp Jr. (9/3/81)

Eeeeeeks. It’s almost Labor Day and for some people with muscular dystrophy, it’s a time of cringing and overall disdain due to the MDA telethon for ‘Jerry’s kids.’ This is the first in our 4-part blog posts on the MDA telethon and specifically the portrayal of people with disabilities as objects of pity.

Check out this opinion piece first published in the New York Times on September 3, 1981.

Aiding the Disabled: No Pity, Please

Evan Kemp Jr.

The Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon with its pity approach to fund-raising has contributed to these prejudices that create vast frustration and anger among the 36 million disabled people in this country. For most of us who have one of the 40 neuromuscular diseases for which the Muscular Dystrophy Association seeks cures, barriers to employment, transportation, housing and recreation can be more devastating and wasteful of our lives than the diseases from which we suffer. The very human desire for cures for these diseases can never justify a television show that reinforces a stigma against disabled people. These prejudices create stereotypes that offend our self-respect, harm our efforts to live independent lives and segregate us from the mainstream of society. The telethon encourages public prejudices in several ways.

With its emphasis on ”poster children” and ”Jerry’s kids,” the telethon focuses primarily on children. The innocence of children makes them ideal for use in a pity appeal. But by celebrating disabled children and ignoring disabled adults, it seems to proclaim that the only socially acceptable status for disabled people is their early childhood. The handicapped child is appealing and huggable – the adolescent or mature adult is a cripple to be avoided.

Treating all disabled people as children is tragic both to the child and to society. Handicapped children are not made aware that many disabled people can and do funtion in society as useful adults and they receive little encouragement to move toward adult independence, which condemns them to live as children all their lives. Society suffers in turn because many disabled people, if encouraged to grow into mature adults, could contribute to their own support and save taxpayers’ dollars.

Another tragedy befalls the families of disabled people who are treated like children: worry about what will happen if the parents die before their still-dependent adult child. Will the handicapped person become a ward of the state? Be ”warehoused” in an overcrowded, uncaring, abusive and expensive institution? In short, mothers, fathers and siblings are needlessly but understandably agonized.

The telethon emphasizes the desperate helplessness of the most severely disabled. In doing so, it reinforces the public’s tendency to equate handicap with total hopelessness. When a telethon makes disabling conditions seem overwhelmingly destructive, it intensifies the awkward embarassment that the able-bodied feel around disabled people. By arousing the public’s fear of the handicap itself, the telethon makes viewers more afraid of hanicapped people. Playing to pity may raise money, but it also raises walls of fear between the public and us.

For the entire piece:

From the EEOC:

Evan J. Kemp, Jr. was named Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by President Bush on March 8, 1990. He was first nominated as an EEOC commissioner by President Reagan on March 10, 1987, and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on June 19, 1987 for a term expiring July 1, 1992.

Chairman Kemp came to EEOC as one of the nation’s leading advocates for persons with disabilities. During his first two and a half years, then Commissioner Kemp played a major role in promoting credible and effective enforcement of the rights of all individuals under the equal employment laws EEOC enforces. As a member of the Bush Administration, Chairman Kemp worked closely with the White House in its consideration and ultimate endorsement of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Evan J. Kemp, Jr. died on August 12, 1997. Read his obituary here:

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