No More Telethons

A little late now, but Catherine Kudlick wrote a great piece on Labor Day without Telethons.

Paul Longmore would have had a lot to say today, the first Labor Day without telethons and without Jerry Lewis. His deeply-researched book, Telethons: Spectacle, Disability and the Business of Charity suggests that he’d be thinking big picture.

Most obituaries praised Lewis as an entertainer and philanthropist. But surprisingly few touched on the fact that the comedian did more than any other single person to influence the lives of 1 in 5 Americans, people with disabilities. History will show that Lewis’s personal and philanthropic success came at an enormous price.

Kudlick writes that Lewis’ pitch was based on stigma:

Imagine hearing yourself being spoken about in such a disparaging way in front of millions, with your parents right there as part of the show. Imagine watching from home, with these yearly programs being the only time anyone ever talked about people like you. And imagine carrying these ideas of being a burden inside as you grew into adulthood.

Certainly the stories that inspired donors to give money to help “the less fortunate” were not ones that would lead them to hire, date, or discover the unique perspective of a person with a disability. By rarely showing adults, the programs ignored the reality that many disabled people grew up to lead rewarding lives.

Pity-based philanthropy never actually solves problems, at least without making new ones.


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