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

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


  1. Did you know that there is now an on-line petition protesting this award? You can read the petition, and sign it, at:

    There is also a Facebook Group dedicated to the campaign:

    I’ve also blogged about the petition, along with a discussion on the difference between “pity” and “empathy,”; why Jerry’s brand of pity destroys; and why real empathy is more likely to lead to human rights:

  2. […] This is the earliest blog post I could find on this topic. Not surprisingly, its author, Laura Hershey, is the woman who created the Facebook group dedicated to protesting Jerry’s award. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Why Deaf People Should Boycott Jerry’s TelethonJerry’s DeathAn Award? For Lil’ ol’ ME?!Scrap the new London 2012 Olympic Logo – quick! […]

  3. Oops — sorry! Yes, of course you know of the petition and the Facebook group, since you started both of them! Sorry, I didn’t make the connection until after I had posted this comment!

  4. Here is the list of the Board of Governors who actually chose him.

    A number of other blogs have people asking whether or not the Academy is even aware of the concern and when or if they will get a copy of the names.

  5. Kathy says:

    Jerry Lewis has raised HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
    The MDA has helped countless individuals and their families, through a myriad of ways; research, equipment, camps, and support. None of which would have been possible, without Mr. Jerry Lewis! He deserves the award more than anyone!
    What have any of you done; but complain, be ungrateful and act like victims!

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