By Harvey Wasserman
The most hopeful, diverse, photogenic, energizing and often hilarious...
The Oscars are about to insult people with disabilities.
At the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will present its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Jerry Lewis.
Lewis is notorious for making disparaging remarks about others, particularly gay people and women.
But he has said equally degrading things about people with disabilities.
For decades, disability rights activists have criticized how his annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association exploits people with disabilities by making us into objects of pity.
To this, Lewis responded in 2001, “You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house!”
Lewis becomes particularly enraged when those who protest against his telethon and him are people with muscular dystrophy — like me.
In a 1993 article in Vanity Fair magazine, he said about me, “This one kid in Chicago would have passed through this life and never had the opportunity to be acknowledged by anybody, but he found out that by being a dissident he gets picked up in a limo by a television station.”
The damage Lewis has done to the disability community goes far beyond name-calling. He and his telethon symbolize an antiquated and destructive 1950s charity mentality.
This says that people with disabilities have no hope and nothing to offer unless we are cured, so the whole focus should be raising money for behemoth charities that can find that cure.
This is a dangerously simplistic outlook.
It devalues and dehumanizes people with disabilities by suggesting we can be worthy contributors only if we first shed our disabilities.
It gives people permission to avoid addressing the daunting task of creating an inclusive society if they simply make an annual contribution to Jerry.
Disability rights activists still fight daily to shatter the barriers that exclude and segregate people with disabilities. Those barriers are rooted in the outmoded charity mentality.
Lewis and his telethon are the primary force that perpetuates that mentality.
By giving Lewis this honor, the board of governors of the Academy shows that its view of people with disabilities and our potential has not evolved in 50 years.