Donna Dewitt, President of the South Carolina chapter of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor organization, has sent the following letter to all affiliates in her state.


254 LaTonea Rd
Columbia SC 29210
(803) 798-8300
(803) 798-2231 Fax

June 28, 2001

TO: All Affiliates

FROM: Donna Dewitt, President

RE: MDA Telethon

An issue has been brought to my attention that I think deserves your serious thought.

On Labor Day weekend this year, as for decades past, the Muscular Dystrophy Association will hold its fund-raising telethon hosted by Jerry Lewis. Historically, many unions and union members have supported this telethon. Indeed, unions have been a vital part of its base.

However, for over 10 years, the MDA telethon has come under fire from the very people it is supposed to serve -- people with disabilities, including people with neuromuscular conditions. While some people with disabilities support the telethon, members of the disability rights movement protest that the telethon promotes outdated stereotypes and encourages pity. They insist they want access, civil rights, and justice, not pity.

I personally think these critics have a very good point. Over the years, Jerry Lewis and MDA have said things about disability that would cause an outcry if said of any other minority group in America today. What if some charity spokesman called African American children "mistakes who came out wrong"? Or called gays "half persons"? We would all recognize that bigotry for what it is. Yet when these things are said of people with disabilities, most Americans do not even notice.

In a CBS interview aired on May 20 of this year, Lewis was asked about his disabled critics. "You're a cripple in a wheelchair and you don't want pity?" he said, "Stay in your house!"

My friend Harriet Johnson doesn't want pity -- and she won't stay in her house on Labor Day. She'll be out protesting the telethon in Charleston.

Harriet, who has used a wheelchair all her life and has a muscle disease covered by MDA, is an attorney and friend of labor. Her brother Mac Johnson is a proud member of IATSE Local 333. She represented the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment at the Working Womens' conference of the national AFL-CIO and joins our picket lines when labor is under attack. Now she is urging labor to join her in opposing the telethon. This will be her 11th year of protest.

I encourage all affiliates to take the following action:

1. Do not appear on the telethon or send your children. If members have a personal reason for wanting to contribute, they might do it anonymously. We should not use the telethon to make ourselves look good at the expense of human dignity.

2. Support non-profit organizations that respect the dignity of the people they represent. Our union experience teaches us that the best organization rises up from the grassroots and brings the rank and file into positions of leadership. An effective organization cannot be built on bigotry.

3. If you are asked to work the telethon, do it for union scale.

4. Make a public statement against the pity-approach to fundraising. Challenge MDA to find a way to do good without doing harm.

Most of us have supported the telethon with the very best of motives. There's nothing wrong with generosity, nothing wrong with wanting to help. We just didn't realize that the "help" MDA gives comes with a heavy price. And now, the message I'm getting is that we can help by giving our solidarity to people with disabilities as they struggle to be recognized as whole people, just the way they are. As union members, we should give our strength to their struggle for civil rights and freedom. Ending prejudice and discrimination is the best way to make lives better.

A good place for more information is This site is maintained by Laura Hershey of Denver, Colorado, one of the most respected voices in the disability rights movement. Harriet contributed some material to it. If you would like to join the protest in the morning of Labor Day (September 3) or go on record as a supporter, please e-mail Harriet at

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