Jerry’s Kids: Pity Not Appreciated

For nearly half a century, comedian Jerry Lewis was the face and mouthpiece of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. From Labor Day 1966 to the time the MDA unceremoniously handed him his pink slip in 2010, Lewis hosted an annual television marathon that raised research funds. You might think that every person with the degenerative musculoskeletal disease was grateful for his help. You would be wrong. Many of “Jerry’s Kids” vehemently disagreed with the pathetic manner in which Lewis portrayed them.

Laura Ann Hershey was one of Jerry’s Kids who went from poster child to protester

In her personal blog at Crip Commentary magazine, Hershey referred to the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon as a “colossal begging festival” and an “annual festival of tears and guilt” rife with “sappy music” that did nothing to promote the dignity, rights, or self-expression of the disabled. Recruited to be a poster child in 1973, 11-year-old Laura became a “prop” in the local TV studio that broadcast the Denver portion of the Labor Day telethon. As an adult, Hershey readily admitted that monetary contributions solicited by the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon helped “some people with some things” but actually did little to help real people stricken with muscular dystrophy.

In 1991, Laura and other former Jerry’s Kids organized protests in Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas and other cities that co-hosted local broadcasts of the MDA Telethon. The protests, Hershey explained, were designed to dispel the image of people with disabilities as helpless and pathetic as well as to promote public understanding of a number of issues, including charity versus civil rights, cure versus accommodation, and the relationship between bigotry and fear.

Jerrys Kids protest Jerry Lewis

Hershey, who died at age 48 just weeks after the MDA fired Jerry Lewis in 2010, was an accomplished poet who penned the following paean to MDA poster children:

“The singers croon. The eyelids droop. The money pours in.

The firefighters, the Boy Scouts, the business executives, the neighborhood kids, all tiredly smiling proud smiles, carry in their collected funds, in jars, in boots, in over-sized checks.

The camera rolls. The host smiles. The money pours in.

The Poster Child gives awkward answers to inane questions. The host smiles. The Poster Child smiles. The host cries. The money pours in.”

In his 1994 tome, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, activist-author Joseph P. Shapiro described Jerry Lewis’ fundraising tactics as “mawkish pandering” and a “strange stew of the worst pity stereotypes mixed with a dash of disability rights thinking.” Shapiro said the Labor Day Telethon focused on fear of disease, the misery of disability, and the pitiful albeit cheery Jerry’s Kids who were doomed to early death.

Shapiro noted that by 1992, “bleeding heart” fundraising by the National Easter Seal Society and United Cerebral Palsy Associations was replaced by actual advocacy for the rights and advancement of disabled persons throughout America.

Jerry Lewis dining with the Nixons

[Feature Image by Mike Rega/Thinkstock]