The annual Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy is supposed to be a "Labor Day Love-In," a sentimental and entertaining fund-raiser that collects millions -- more than $45 million last year -- for research and treatment of 40 neuromuscular diseases, according to its longtime unpaid host, comedian Jerry Lewis.

But behind the scenes, the love-in is beginning to look more like a war.

Over Labor Day weekend, telethon critics, who include several former telethon poster children who call themselves "Jerry's Orphans," plan demonstrations in more than two dozen cities at stations carrying the broadcast.

On one side of the dispute are critics who charge that the telethon, as Lewis runs it, fosters an outdated image of disabled people as pitiful and childlike.

On the other side are defenders who say the telethon -- which Lewis began hosting from New York City in the 1950s -- raises money to save and improve lives. Next week it will be broadcast from Las Vegas.

The conflict has even embroiled the White House, pitting President Bush and a top adviser against the chairman of a federal civil rights agency.

Telethon protesters are also asking corporate sponsors to drop the event. So far, corporations say that their support for the event remains unchanged, although TCI Corp. in Denver did invite local protesters to review the portrayal of disabled people in its commercials for the telethon.

The critics say they want the telethon to portray disability as a normal part of life rather than as a tragedy, to reduce the role of children, and to put somewhat less emphasis on finding a cure and more emphasis on improving disabled people's lives.

"Our goal is not to put the MDA {Muscular Dystrophy Association} out of business," said Mike Ervin, a former telethon poster child from Chicago who last year formed Jerry's Orphans with his sister, Chris Matthews, also a former poster child. "Our goal is to put Jerry Lewis out of the disability business. He has no business being there. He doesn't understand in any way, nor does he wish to, the majority of the {disabled} population." Lewis declined to be interviewed.

Anti-telethon forces have an ally in Evan Kemp Jr., chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws in the workplace. Kemp, who has muscular dystrophy, was on record for years before he attained his EEOC post as opposing the telethon for what he called its "pity approach to fund-raising." Last year he began raising the issue again.

"Stereotyping, which the pity approach reinforces, leads to all kinds of discrimination," Kemp wrote last spring in a letter to a director of an independent living center for disabled people who had asked for a clarification of his views. "For why should an employer hire someone who, admired public figures on the telethon tell them, is really helpless?"

In February, Lewis wrote a letter to Bush describing himself as a "point of light" and accusing Kemp of "misusing the power of his governmental office" to attack the telethon.

Samuel Skinner, then White House chief of staff, responded that the administration had "no position" on the MDA's fund-raising methods. But in July, after the MDA complained about a published interview in which Kemp raised the issue again, it received a different letter from Skinner.

"We have talked further with Kemp, reiterating the president's full and enthusiastic support for the MDA and the Labor Day Telethon and our expectation that he will refrain from attacking the organization and event in the future," Skinner wrote.

Kemp and Skinner declined to comment for this article.

Supporters of the telethon call its critics a misguided and small minority of disabled people who misunderstand the telethon's content.

"They confuse pity with compassion," said Matthew Schuman, a sports reporter for the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune who has muscular dystrophy and is a former poster child. "I don't think there's anything wrong with a society that's compassionate toward others."

Some say that the conflict over the telethon reflects a change in the way many Americans with disabilities view themselves. "What Jerry's Orphans are trying to say is, 'Sorry, Jerry, we're not children anymore,' " said Julie Shaw Cole, a Louisville psychotherapist who counsels people with disabilities.

Telethon critics say Lewis's frequent references to the people he is helping as "my kids" and the MDA's use of poster children for the telethon reinforce paternalistic images of people with disabilities as helpless, tragic victims in need of charity.

But the MDA says that the majority of people profiled on the show are adults leading productive lives, and that the telethon has widespread support among disabled people.