Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

December, 2008:

Oral History and Disability Rights

Storytelling and reflection have been at the heart of most of my writing. During the last couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to explore a field that’s all about recording people’s experiences and memories — oral history. I volunteer as an interviewer for the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO), at the University of California. I’ve conducted in-depth interviews with four dynamic disability rights activists, two women and two men, all brilliant organizers and thinkers.

Transcripts of two of those interviews have just been posted online, as part of ROHO’s Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement collection.

Alana Theriault is one of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to Social Security and Medicaid benefits, employment options, and personal assistance programs. She has helped numerous Californians navigate through these mind-bogglingly complex systems. She has also helped to formulate policy, always advocating for more fair and flexible regulations. Alana gained all this knowledge by necessity. As a teenager, lacking adequate support services at home, she went to live in a nursing facility. Determined to achieve independence, she fought for the resources she needed, and found a supportive disability community. Since then, she has lived a self-determined life, and helped others to do the same.

John Kelly combines scholarship and advocacy in creative, provocative ways. Through writing, teaching, and activism, he challenges our culture’s deep investment in the concept of “ability,” and how that leads to discriminatory attitudes and practices affecting disabled people. Since his injury as a young man, John has questioned why disability, a perfectly natural phenomenon, causes such fear and loathing in our society.

I’m proud of my work on these interviews. I’m also really impressed with the important contribution that ROHO is making to documenting the ongoing movement for the rights of people with disabilities.

To read the interviews with Alana Theriault and John Kelly, follow this link and then click on the name.

Jerry Lewis, Oscar-sanctioned “humanitarian”

The news broke on December 10 that Jerry Lewis will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscar Award ceremony on February 22. Since Lewis’ primary, highest-profile, and as far as I know, only “humanitarian” effort is his many decades of hosting the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, I can only conclude that the Motion Picture Academy is rewarding Lewis specifically for perpetuating negative stereotypes of disabled people, whom he has referred to as “half persons.”

As word has spread around the disability activist community, the tone of the e-mails has evolved quickly from disbelief, to anger, to determination. This award provides further evidence that Hollywood, and by extension mainstream America itself, still has no clue — or doesn’t care — about the disability rights movement’s analyses of the discriminatory attitudes and actions that we face.

Jerry Lewis didn’t create those discriminatory attitudes, but he has helped fuel them. In 1990, he wrote that if he had muscular dystrophy and had to use a wheelchair, he would “just have to learn to try to be good at being a half a person.” During the 1992 Telethon, he said that people with MD, whom he always insists on calling “my kids,” “cannot go into the workplace. There’s nothing they can do.” That’s just the kind of thinking that has contributed to disabled people’s extremely high unemployment rate.

Comments like these have led disability activists and our allies to protest against Jerry Lewis, and against the Telethon. We’ve argued that the Telethon promotes pity, a counterproductive emotion which undermines our social equality. Here’s how Lewis responded to the Telethon protesters during a 2001 television interview: “Pity? You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!”

On February 22, 2009, we won’t be staying in our houses watching the Academy Awards. We’ll be publicly objecting to this award. We’ll be defending our own humanity against this so-called “humanitarian.” Stay tuned…

For more information about the history of the Telethon protest, go to