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Labor Day Telethon, Hopeful or Hideous?

I grew up watching the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. I can still recall picking up the phone to make a pledge with tears streaming down my cheeks, and I still have the same reaction today as I did then. Jerry Lewis may have been crowned the “king of comedy,” but to me he is the “king of crying.” And when he himself is not crying or making you cry, he yells at the television screen and begs you to give money to help “Jerry’s kids.”

Yes, for crying out loud, watching the sad stories of children and adults suffering through disabilities makes you count your blessings. And it’s while we’re counting those blessings that we’re calling and giving whatever we can give. We’re human, after all, and it’s a completely human reaction to sympathize with another person’s plight. You just wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t feel sad when you watched the telethon.

It’s this “tragedy/charity” model that has helped Jerry Lewis raise more than $2 billion since the late 1950s to fund medical research and patient support programs. MDA provides care at 255 clinics and MDA centers across the country, sponsors support groups, offers free flu vaccinations, helps with the repair and purchase of wheelchairs and braces and sends young children with muscular dystrophy to MDA sponsored summer camps. It also happens to be a very efficient charitable organization that spends 78.4 cents per every dollar for research, services and education (an industry-wide rule of thumb is that charities spending at least 75% of income toward programs and services are running efficiently.)

This year’s telethon is less than two weeks away, and I decided I would write about it here on the Charity Site. It just makes sense, right? So I started my research, and boy did I dig up an awful lot of negative stuff about Jerry Lewis and the MDA Telethon. I had heard in the past about some protests against the Telethon, but I had never gone deep into the rationale behind them.

Until now.

In case you haven’t heard about the controversy, let me fill you in. Adults with various forms of muscular dystrophy, many of them former MDA poster children, have grown more and more enraged at what they call the Telethon “pity fest.” They don’t like individuals with the disease being portrayed as helpless and less than human. Many of their arguments stem directly from past comments Jerry Lewis actually made, including referring to individuals with MDA as “half persons.” (Yes, he really said that.) Protestors want the telethon to focus on a celebration of disability as diversity rather than a salute to sadness. They don’t want your pity, but rather they want your help in fighting for equal rights and a fair share of government funds to support disabled individuals.

Well, when I think about it, this argument makes complete sense. Medical research being conducted to find cures will only help future generations. The folks today living with MDA are indeed living with the disease. We can’t assume their lives are less than perfect – rather, we have to help them live as perfect a life as they can.

Perfect, after all, is relative, isn’t it? My sister has been mentally retarded since she was 4 years old. Although I wish she didn’t have to struggle with this challenge, all I want for her is to be as happy as she can be, and she is. Happy for her and happy for me might be two different things. But all anyone wants is to be as happy and as healthy as possible.

Then, when I think more about it, I realize that there are so many charities out there that use the “tragedy/charity” model to raise money. Whether we are being asked to pity the homeless victims of Hurricane Katrina, the starving children in Africa, or the babies born with birth defects, we are constantly being barraged with devastating images of other people’s struggles. I don’t think it’s a completely bad thing to show how devastating an illness or situation can be in order to tug at people’s purse strings. These situations are, after all, very real and if we weren’t shown these images, we wouldn’t know about them at all. And if we don’t know about people in need, how can we help?

So here we are. There are always two sides to every story. The bottom line for me is that, though I can understand the protestor’s arguments, I myself can’t protest the Jerry Lewis Telethon. It does, after all, do great things to be helpful. Can you really kick someone in the face when all they want to do is help?

What do you think?

MDA 2009 Telethon
Protestors’ Site
Tragedy/Charity Model

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