Crip Commentary: Laura Hershey's Weekly Web Column

Laura Hershey's Whenever Web Column

Column from May 27, 2001

An Open Letter to Robert Ross, CEO of the Muscular Dystrophy Association

Copyright 2001 by Laura Hershey

May 27, 2001

Mr. Robert Ross, CEO
Muscular Dystrophy Association - USA
National Headquarters
3300 E. Sunrise Drive
Tucson, AZ 85718

also via email:

Dear Mr. Ross:

I have waited all week, expecting that the Muscular Dystrophy Association would be issuing some kind of statement in an attempt to explain, clarify, or somehow rationalize statements made last Sunday by Jerry Lewis. I cannot understand why or how MDA would decide to remain silent, thus giving tacit approval to Lewis' arrogant and venomous remarks.

Interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning, Jerry Lewis was apparently asked for his thoughts about people with disabilities who object to his characterization of our lives as pitiful and pathetic. To those individuals who take exception to the pity-promoting tactics he uses in soliciting donations, Lewis offered the following advice:

"Pity? You don't want to be pitied because you're a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!"

I believe this is, to date, Lewis' most direct attack against the disability community. His 1991 Parade magazine article, in which he referred to people in wheelchairs as "half persons," certainly showed grotesque insensitivity, and hostility to the value of the people he claims to serve. When, several years later, Lewis called children with muscle diseases "mistakes who came out wrong," he made his prejudice even more obvious. And when he claimed that Telethon protesters were "sitting in chairs I bought them," he was using an outright lie in an attempt to discredit people who disagree with him.

Now, Lewis has outdone himself. He expressed his undisguised contempt for the idea that people with disabilities are entitled to dignity and respect. People with such unreasonable expectations, according to Lewis, should stay invisible and confined at home.

Mr. Ross, is it now the official policy of MDA that pity is the only possible response/attitude toward disability; and that people who want more from life should "stay in [our] house[s]"? In other words, does MDA support Jerry Lewis' insistence that we, people with disabilities, should quietly accept other people's pity, regardless of the cost to our dignity and our quest for equal citizenship?

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the history of oppression of people with disabilities in the United States (although your organization has, in a small way, contributed to it). For over a century, cultural attitudes, physical barriers, and social policies have combined to keep many people with disabilities out of public life, and segregated from the community. These barriers included inaccessible buildings and buses, lack of necessary support services, and even state laws making it illegal for "deformed" persons to appear on public streets. In other words, we were compelled to "stay in our houses."

Jerry Lewis' comment, therefore, is not some random, meaningless insult. Rather, it invokes a specific history of severe, widespread, longstanding discrimination. It seems to be a calculated slap in the face of the entire community of people with disabilities.

If you and MDA do share Jerry Lewis' outdated, bigoted views, then I can understand your continued reliance upon him as a spokesperson for your organization. If you do not, then why do you continue to indulge him, tacitly condoning his increasingly hostile statements?

You should know that I intend to post this letter on my website, Crip Commentary, at . Should you choose to answer me, I will post your response as well.


Laura Hershey

Click here for "Jerry Lewis Vs. Disability Rights," with more information about the MDA Telethon, and reports about disability rights activists' protests Labor Day weekend, 2001.

Back to Current Column

More of Laura's Previous Columns

Laura's Longer Articles

Laura's Poetry

Laura's Art

Laura's Consulting Services

Email Laura