Column from September 10, 1999
Are We Making Progress in Educating Against the Telethon?
Copyright 1999 by Laura Hershey
Monday, September 6, 1999
In the next room I can hear a woman on television calling my disability a "fatal disease." Last evening, the Telethon featured a family whose young son has the same condition. They said that his diagnosis had "destroyed their dreams of healthy children and a large family." In other words, they wouldn't consider having more children that might turn out, like their first son, to have spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). Most people probably think that's a reasonable decision. That's because most people haven't experienced disability personally, and grown to realize that it's a natural part of life. Most people have had their perceptions of disability shaped by myth -- and by mass media mirages like the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.
That's why every Labor Day, while those Telethon images are riding the airwaves into viewers' holiday-softened minds, I go out to tell a different story -- one person at a time.
When it comes to countering the Telethon's messages, staying home and writing articles isn't enough. I feel compelled to get out there and talk to people face to face. I want to see and hear for myself what messages they've gotten -- and I want to offer them an alternative message.
I did so again this year, alongside about 10 other dedicated activists. Most were members of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, a statewide grassroots advocacy group. Julie Reiskin, the director of the CCDC, commented to me that we should do more of this kind of thing, attacking the destructive propaganda put out by the large corporate charities such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Multiple Sclerosis Society. We both agreed that it's often difficult to devote the time and resources needed to refute those groups' negative images. "Most of the time we're fighting for more life-and-death issues," Julie said. "But it's because of these attitudes that the life-and-death issues happen."
So there we were, passing out our one-page flyers in the parking lot of Albertson's grocery store, as the hot sun beat down on us. As each customer entered or exited the store, we would say politely, "Excuse me; would you like a flyer explaining why we're opposed to the Jerry Lewis Telethon?" Most paused, and accepted the paper we handed them. If they paused long enough, we would add, "Albertson's is a corporate sponsor of the Telethon. That's why we're here. Please let the store manager know that they shouldn't sponsor the Telethon's negative images."
To our surprise, the vast majority of passersby were polite, open, and even interested in our issue. Almost everyone took a flyer, even when armloads of groceries made it inconvenient to do so. Some of them began reading it immediately, slowing their steps to study it carefully. A number of people said, "I agree with you," and variations on that theme. Several stopped to chat with us, asking questions that seemed to come from genuine curiosity -- questions about where the money raised by the Telethon really goes, etc.
Even Albertson's employees were reasonably positive toward us -- despite a large, prominent sign posted near the entrance to the shopping center's parking lot (which I don't remember seeing last year) announcing a strict prohibition on "handbilling." Several employees accepted our flyers as they zoomed by, pushing long trains of carts in from the parking lot. One man, who looked to be some kind of assistant manager, came outside for a short break. He stood reading our flyer, and nodding. "That's a good point you've got!" he said approvingly. Someone in our group told him that Albertson's is a Telethon sponsor. "Really?" he responded, sounding surprised. But it didn't seem to change his feeling that we were right.
Later another, probably higher-up manager came out to size us up. He was a bit less welcoming, and more disturbed by the situation. "You can't be blocking my doors!" he blustered. We pointed out that we were not blocking his doors. "You can't bother my customers!" he fumed. We noted that we weren't bothering anybody; we were just offering the flyers to anyone who wanted one. He went back to focusing on our potential disruption of his customer traffic. "You can't be here on my sidewalks!" he said. "It makes it harder for people to get to my doors." Robin obligingly moved off of the sidewalk -- right into the fire lane. "Here!" he said nervously. "I don't want you getting hit by a car! Come on back up here!" So she returned to her post on the sidewalk.
That manager watched us for a few more minutes. "You know," he pointed out, "you're really not allowed to be here." We waited for him to order us to leave. He never did. He went back inside. I didn't see him again until later, after we finished leafleting, when Robin and I went inside to do our grocery shopping for the week. Then he was as friendly to us as he could be. He seemed to have no difficulty accepting our transition from protesters to customers.
During our little action, I personally only encountered two or three negative reactions. A couple of people angrily crumpled up the flyer, and stalked away. One woman approached me with the flyer that someone else had handed her, and asked confrontationally, "Do you understand what this is saying?" I answered that indeed I did, since I had written it. Then she started talking about Jesus going among the lepers. This was completely outside my realm of expertise, so I just let her talk. She went on for a while about how Americans are cruel and selfish; and how, if they could be talked into acts of kindness, it was a true miracle. Then, as she seemed to wind down, I said, "Okay, thank you." She went away.
(I know I could have handled that conversation more artfully. Or at least I could have referred her over to Carrie Lucas, a CCDC member who just recently graduated from seminary. But I was really hot by this time, and not thinking very clearly.)
How to account for the fact that such an overwhelming majority of people seemed to receive our message with agreement, interest or, at least, tolerance? Maybe we are making progress! Maybe pity is going out of style. Even though most people haven't heard specifically about our objections to the Telethon's manipulation of our lives, maybe the disability-rights movement is starting to succeed in creating a context within which those objections make some sense to people.
I wonder: Are we making a dent in the attitudes created by the Telethon and its ilk? Or am I being naively optimistic?
Read 1993 Article "From Poster Child to Protester"
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