"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Monday, September 3, 2007

Blogging for Civil Rights: The MDA Telethon Edition

I'm sure lots of working Americans are really happy to have the day off today, but not everything is great about Labor Day. For one thing, my local conservative radio station took the opportunity to discuss why they think labor unions are nothing but money-stealing organizations that support lazy people who don't want to work. For another thing, there's the annual Jerry Lewis MDA telethon.
The telethon is widely known as one of television's longest running traditions, but it doesn't take a genius to know that that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good thing.  People have defended some crazy things in the name of tradition.  And as I blogged here, not everyone is supportive of this particular tradition.  Disability activism has come a long way since the telethon began in 1966, but unfortunately the attitudes underlying this annual fundraiser have not. 
I hate to make this whole argument out of analogies, and I would never want to make any unfair comparisons, but as a social justice advocate, it's easy to see the parallels between disability activism and other anti-oppression movements.  The Muscular Dystrophy Association may have good intentions with what it is trying to do with the telethon, but the problem lies with its approach.  By portraying disability as a horrible, awful thing that makes its "victims" objects of pity and somehow less than "normal" people, it only perpetuates harmful stereotypes about people who live with disabilities.  Stereotypes that affect how others view them and how they view themselves.  And here's where the anaologies come in:  We know that being anything other than a straight white male in our society means that you have a number of forces working against you.  But what if someone were to propose that the solution to inequality was not to fight for civil rights, but to find a way to make everyone become straight white males?  Do LGBTQ activists like it when people argue that they shouldn't be gay?  How do people of color enjoy being told to assimilate to avoid discrimination?  Women bristle at the idea that the way to equality is to act more like men, and of course people with disabilities have every right to be horribly offended by an annual day-long event in which patronizing "normals" try to raise money on their behalf by drumming up pity based on the ridiculous assertion that their disability somehow makes them less than everyone else.  Civil rights activism is not centered around making marginalized people more "normal"; it is about making society more fair, accepting, and accessible.   It is the oppressor that needs reforming, and NOT the oppressed.
The telethon-protest movement (which was actually started by former telethon poster children) has come under a lot of criticism for being "ungrateful" for all the perceived good the telethon has done in its forty years of existence.  But to them ( and quite understandably so), it doesn't matter how much money the telethon makes.  The donations are just unwelcome as long as they're in the name of pity and as long as the telethon contributes to the marginalization of people with disabilities.  The MDA telethon and it's host happen to be downright insulting to people with disabilities, and  HERE's what the disability rights movement would like to see from the MDA (via cripcommentary.com):
1. Immediately fire Jerry Lewis as host of the MDA Telethon.

2. Immediately stop using children in fundraising efforts. Parents can no longer consent to their exploitation.

3. Immediately hire an independent auditor to conduct an honest, impartial, objective accounting of the Telethon's costs and revenues.

4. Based on the accounting, develop a timetable for "weaning" the MDA budget away from dependence on the Telethon

(For links to other posts about the telethon, refer to the comments section of this post at Miss Crip Chick's blog.)



Anonymous said...

It is absolutely true what you say about people who are not strait white males always seem to have something wrong with them. And the only way to get people to respect and admire you is becoming like a strait white male.

I think this is because the strait white male has ruled the world for a very long time and demands that to be normal you must be like him. I think the strait white males are the only group that have oppressed every single group on this planet including people of their own colour namely white women and gay men. And they firmly believe they should be doing so because been a strait white male makes you superior to all other people on this planet.

Too often we strive to be like the strait white male instead of recognising him for been the oppressor.

This most likely sounds way too radical, but I think the only way to overcome this problem is that the strait white male needs to be overthrown and all the groups that he oppressed should be ruling the world together. As I really don’t see the men ever truly reforming.

But then of course miracles do happen.

Daisy Deadhead said...

The MDA thing is now an industry; the telethon is a full-time job for the TV employees--they aren't about to give it up. (And what else does Jerry have?)

Ever seen the Martin Scorsese movie KING OF COMEDY? That's Jerry. I really think it summed up how humorless and nasty he really is.

Anonymous said...

Hi -- I wanted to make sure you knew about the latest that is happening with Jerry and his, yes, humanitarian award:

Jerry Lewis, the man who runs the annual Telethon to raise money for people with muscular dystrophy in the US is about to receive a humanitarian award. Many people in the disability community is protesting this award because they feel that Jerry perpetuates and entrenches negative, harmful stereotypes toward people with disabilities. More about the petition campaign at: http://www.petitiononline.com/jlno2009/petition.html

There is also a Facebook group at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=40538392681