Friday, August 7, 2009

Cinderfella, a Humanitarian?

The funniest event in the long career of comedian/actor Jerry Lewis occurred on February 22, 2009, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him its Jean Hersholt humanitarian Oscar.

Here was my reaction:

What a joke! Only nobody is laughing.

Sure, the Oscar ceremony may seem harmless, fluffy fun. Yet to acclaim Lewis a philanthropist and promoter of human welfare is seriously offensive.

Of course, he's receiving the accolade because of his four-decades' work as chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the charity that purports to combat more than 40 neurological diseases and produces the Labor Day Telethon.

Never mind his frequent slurs against the disabled as "cripples," gays as "fags" and women as nothing more than baby-producing machines. After all, being smart-mouthed is part of his shtick. His politically incorrect patter might simply be outdated, not mean-spirited.

In fact, my primary objection to Lewis' receiving the humanitarian award is precisely because of his chairmanship of the MDA.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, when the MDA was headquartered in New York, I was its metropolitan-area poster child, one step away from being its national poster child. I could have been Jerry's No. 1 kid. But then came a full-page magazine spread of me, at seven, standing in leg braces and looking up through unruly blond curls with the overhead caption: "If I grow up, I want to be a fireman."

If? Though I was born with spinal muscular atrophy, one of the disabling diseases the MDA targets for research bucks and free doctor visits, and could never walk or stand on my own, my condition had "plateaued," as the neurologists say, and my life expectancy was normal. Plus, I did not want to be a fireman! I wanted to be a scientist. Told about the caption ahead of time, I crossed my fingers as the camera clicked.

Afterward, furious at being exploited, I told my mother I wanted to quit. I could no longer peddle pity, which I already knew was a problem in my life.

To be sure, by now everyone is aware that the MDA offends many disabled people by promoting pity over progress. It will continue doing this because pity, like sex, sells. And the money it raises doubtless goes to good causes—medical research and, for those without adequate health insurance, some wheelchair purchases and clinical visits. The MDA also hosts an accessible summer camp.

Yet it's never given even passing support to the cause of disability rights. It stresses medical cures instead of equal education and job opportunities. What's worse, by medicalizing people with disabilities it actually works against our full inclusion in society.

The cost to disabled people's status and self-esteem is far too great.

What's most shocking has been the Cinderfella star's hostility toward changing his or the MDA's marketing tactics. He dismissed protesters as a lunatic minority, and in a 1993 Vanity Fair profile he threatened the MDA's critics by saying, "I'll have you killed." Was that more sharp-tongued humor? Even more surprising, in the 1990s when I suggested to MDA's then chief executive, the late Robert Ross, that we settle our differences, he flatly refused. Hate mail ensued. Though Ross denied any part in it, I then received a letter that began, "Dear Mr. Mattlin, I don't know what you did, but at my local MDA meeting they told us to write you and tell you to stop doing it..."

Clearly, Jerry Lewis spearheads a charity that's far more devious than I'd ever suspected. Praising him for his public service is like giving Donald Trump a cash prize for humility. It just doesn't make any sense. It perverts whatever meaning the Jean Hersholt Oscar ever had.

More importantly, the Academy's ill-advised tribute to Lewis is an affront to those of us he and the MDA have exploited and offended for years. Indeed, it belittles the truly humanitarian effort to normalize disability, which Lewis has willfully worked against.

The Oscar committee really lost touch with reality on this one.
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