Jerry Lewis, you’re not funny,
You’re using people to raise money!
Stop the pity, stop the lies,
Stop to think — don’t patronize!
(Chants taken from http://www.cripcommentary.com/LewisVsDisabilityRights.html)
The short film The Kids are Alright is based on Jerry’s Orphans, a group of disability rights activists. The activists are protesting against the ‘pity approach’ which is used by the annual event the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon. The pity approach adopted by the Telethon proved to be the antithesis of everything that the disability civil rights movement was trying to achieve. In this circumstance it was evident that pity prevents empowerment. Mike, a disability activist within this film is trying to break away from his image of a 1960s poster child.
The poster child image can be seen as problematic for an adult with a disability. The “tiny Tim” evokes the idea of a pathetic and helpless individual, indeed a perfect candidate for pity.
The audience failed to grasp that there is a wider structural system such as medical healthcare that has failed these children. As Mike states in the film:
“Why is our mobility and quality of life so unimportant that we have to resort to these lengths just to get the support we need? That tells you quite a bit about how much America cares.”
Suggesting that the poster child is no more than their disability, reduced to a token figure of pity in order to appeal to the audience’s conscience and commodified in order to produce goods. The audience members of the telethon are contributing towards this disempowerment. Rather than focusing on social policy changes that would enable these children to be mobile and independent of their own accord, in this situation they can only gain independence through the receipt of pity and gifts from others.
Mike and the ‘Jerry’s Orphans’ are depicted in the film as forming a united front, showing scenes of a barrage of wheelchairs breaking through security barriers, chanting “No more pity!” Mike asserts that he in fact pities those who pity him, his pragmatic attitude and supports the film’s underlying themes that control over the lives of disabled people should originate with those who are affected by it, placing people with disabilities at the helm of disability organization.
Finally, the film shows Mike in an interview, discussing at length the injustice he felt was committed by Jerry Lewis; demonstrating his personal dislike of Lewis’s tactics. Mike quoted Jerry’s article regarding his attempts to empathize with people with disabilities, in order to show that Jerry was reducing people with disabilities as a ‘half a person’:
When I sit back and think a little more rationally, I realize my life is half, so I must learn to do things halfway. I just have to learn to try to be good at being half a person. I may be a full human being in my heart and soul, yet I am still half a person.
People I showed this film to found this part particularly disturbing. It was considered to be problematic that someone who was the ambassador of an organization raising money for people with muscular dystrophy might hold this position that disabled people are somehow ‘half a person’. Instead of empowering disabled people, Jerry Lewis’s actions and comments debilitates the representation of disabled people’s identity.
In 2011, it was announced that Lewis will step down as national chairman of the MDA.
To find out more about Jerry’s Orphans, you can access the full film here: http://www.thekidsareallright.org/watch.html