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