Television fund-raising on behalf or in the name of handicapped or disabled people (known as the telethon) has taken on all the accoutrements of "show biz." The foremost example is the "Jerry Lewis Labor Day of Love Telethon" conducted on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
This telethon, conducted annually, appeals to the generosity of the American people and magnifies that goodness many times over by a contrived evocation of a deep and profound sense of pity and despair for the lot of disabled children and adults. The appeals are glamorized with the appearance of Hollywood and television stars, while exhibiting children with severe neuromuscular diseases, depicting disabled people as childlike, helpless, hopeless, non-functioning, non-contributing members of society. Last year, this pity approach yielded a whopping $31,103,787.
The telethon was inaugurated during the 1950s at a time when it was believed that a cure for muscular dystrophy could be found in a short time if funds were made available for the research. Admittedly, there are benefits from the research. But now, some 30 years later, it is generally recognized that discovery of the cure is not even close. In the meantime, the Muscular Dystrophy Association has lost sight of its original goal: the restoration of muscular dystrophy sufferers to the mainstream of life.
As an advocate of the rights of disabled children and adults, and as a disabled individual myself, I am acutely aware that what good is achieved by the telethon is vastly outweighed by the harm done through its pity approach. It implies that the 36 million disabled people of this nation are and necessarily must be second- class citizens. It reinforces and even helps to build attitudinal barriers to equal opportunity in education and employment and equal access to transportation, housing and recreation. Its emphasis on finding cures creates the impression that disabled people are sick and that we cannot be happy unless we are cured.
The telethon utilizes children with neuromuscular diseases and not adults who are achieving, supporting themselves and living independently. Thus, the celebration of sick children stereotypes all disabled people as childlike, in need of constant care and incapable of assuming the role of adults. This takes its toll on us; but it also creates fear in the minds of the public, as well as guilt feelings, rejection and many other negative emotions, blocking normal socials communication. The telethon raises a lot of money, but it also raises a lot of walls of fear.
If the telethon is to be truly helpful to disabled children and adults, it must show us working, raising families and participating generally in the life and activity of our communities. It must emphasize the development of independent living programs to release disabled people and their families from anxiety and fears concerning the future. It must inform the public of the great economic and human waste that results from policies and programs that promote and perpetuate dependence rather than those that permit and foster equal opportunity, civil rights and independence of disabled people.