Some Of Jerry's Kids Are Mad At The Old Man

Many Americans can't imagine spending Labor Day without comedian Jerry Lewis and his muscular dystrophy telethon. But former poster child Michael Ervin sure can.

The 36-year-old Ervin now heads a Chicago-based organization called Jerry's Orphans, a counter-group to "Jerry's kids"--the band of disabled youngsters who appear on the show. He wants to oust the venerable entertainer from his roles as master of ceremonies of the telethon and a chief spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. (MDA). With protests scheduled for more than 20 cities during the Sept. 6-7 broadcast this year, it's a mission that is embroiling big names in Corporate America, dividing the disabled community--and even splitting the Bush Administration.

`IVORY TOWER.' The problem: Ervin and his followers are outraged at Lewis' view of the disabled as helpless victims. They brand his approach as outmoded, paternalistic, and out of step with the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1991 antidiscrimination law intended to help the disabled to join the mainstream. The brouhaha intensified after Lewis wrote a September, 1990, article in Parade magazine, supposedly from the vantage point of a child with muscular dystrophy. He referred to a wheelchair, which activists view simply as a form of transportation, as a "steel imprisonment." He added: "When I sit back and think a little more rationally, I realize my life is half . . . I just have to learn to try to be good at being half a person."

That's a far different picture from what many disabled actually would have drawn. They reject the notion that they're less than complete human beings. They argue that they're quite capable of doing most things able-bodied people can do--as long as architects and builders don't put stumbling blocks in their paths.

No wonder Lewis' article has enraged a broad spectrum of advocates for the disabled. To them, it suggests that despite his years of support for their cause, the comedian still doesn't understand the disabled. Ervin says Lewis treats muscular-dystrophy-afflicted people "as though he's in an ivory tower handing something down."

So during the telethon, Ervin's group plans to picket airports, 7-Eleven convenience stores, and other sites to persuade corporate sponsors such as Kellogg, Southland, and United Airlines to boycott the event. The companies so far are holding firm in their support for Lewis and the 21 1/2-hour show. "The telethon is doing what it was set up to do, raising funds to find cures and provide patient services," says a spokeswoman for Southland, 7-Eleven's parent. Adds a United Airlines spokesman: "The MDA-Jerry Lewis partnership can continue to be effective in the years ahead."

HEFTY SUMS. The comedian still maintains some support among the disabled. There's Arnold D. Gale, for instance, a pediatric neurologist who has muscular dystrophy and whose life story will be featured on the fund-raiser this year. "To tell Mr. Lewis he no longer has a role to play in a movement that he helped found is unacceptable," Gale says. Lewis declined to comment.

Even Lewis' critics don't want to undermine the star-studded telethon itself. A Labor Day tradition since 1966, it is carried on more than 200 television stations across the country, attracting Super Bowl-size audiences of up to 100 million viewers, the Tucson-based MDA says. Despite stiff competition from cable stations and videocassette recorders, the call-in has thrived. In 1991, the telethon raised $45.1 million, up from $34.1 million in 1986. The money goes to medical research, wheelchairs, and summer camps for many of the 1 million people with muscular dystrophy. About 24% of the proceeds is earmarked for administrative expenses.

But Lewis' opponents say the psychological price that people with muscular dystrophy and other disabilities pay is far greater than the money he brings in. Consider Evan J. Kemp Jr., the wheelchair-bound chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who suffers from a rare neuromuscular disease called Kugelberg-Welander syndrome. He has criticized the telethon--despite President Bush's support for it--because it rakes in dollars by using a "pity approach." Complains Kemp: "The telethon paints disabled people as childlike and with one foot in the grave."

Such blasts may not have any immediate impact. But the controversy isn't likely to die down any time soon. Nor is the question of whether Lewis' fund-raising shtick, like his goofy slapstick routines, has outlived its time.

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