Jerry Lewis and “The Crippler”

In his book “Telethons” the disability historian Paul Longmore observed that in the late twentieth century, “nearly everyone who talked about telethons—whether they were defenders or critics, including most disability rights activists—focused on the MDA Telethon and its host, comedian Jerry Lewis. That was not surprising. In the intensely competitive arena of televised charity solicitation, the MDA’s became the most successful and praised of the programs, as well as the most scorned. In 1989 National Public Radio’s Scott Simon described it as “the largest, single-day, private fundraising effort in the world, an extravaganza of entertainment, and fundraising sensation.”

The scorn came from the growing disability rights movement which saw Jerry Lewis as a pitchman for pity and whose language “about” disability presented children as hostages to illness without seeing disablement as merely one factor among many that constitute a life. Now that Jerry Lewis has passed away, as we think about his long and remarkable career, it’s altogether proper to reflect on the damage he did to real disabled people. The harm wasn’t just his—the charity industry in the United States came of age through a combination of forces, a new mass media, first film, then broadcasting houses, direct mail appeals, and a post-war cult of nearly instant celebrity, the likes of which hadn’t been seen much before World War II.

In fact, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had become famous overnight. They went from performing in second string nightclubs to the famed Copacabana within weeks, and then to Hollywood. Martin was a lounge singer from Steubenville, Ohio, a town of blast furnaces along the Ohio River. Lewis was a skinny, peripatetic, wisecracking Jewish kid from Newark, New Jersey, whose parents were minor vaudevillians and he longed to be on a stage, any stage. The war was over. America was still young. Anyone could be anything. Martin and Lewis were overnight sensations. Not since the Great Caruso crossed the Atlantic to sing opera in New York had we seen such a meteoric rise from poverty to stardom.

Jerry Lewis had grown up in a town of crippled kids—the nation was a country of crippled kids. Newark was a polio city. In his novel “Nemesis” Philip Roth describes Polio-Newark circa 1940 as a city where “a paralytic disease…left a youngster permanently disabled and deformed or unable to breathe outside a cylindrical metal respirator tank known as an iron lung—or that could lead from paralysis of the respiratory muscles to death…”

As a teenager attending the movies Lewis would invariably have seen the infamous “short” starring Raymond Massey as “The Crippler”—the sinister, looming shadow of polio who lurks at the edge of the schoolyard to capture innocent children. “Please, Mister! Let me go!” they’d cry.  Then: “Oh, I can’t move!” The theater lights would go up. Ushers came around to collect donations for the March of Dimes, the charitable organization co-founded by the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nation’s most famous polio survivor.

Lewis saw disability as most Americans of his time did—as an implacable thief, a menacing, unnameable dread. When Martin and Lewis began in showbiz the disabled were not generally out in public. Polio victims were kept out of sight. Any disabling condition was understood as a dreadful thing. But fighting “The Crippler” meant displaying children. Roth writes:

“During the annual fund drive, America’s young donated their dimes at school to help in the fight against the disease, they dropped their dimes into collection cans passed around by ushers in movie theaters, and posters announcing “You Can Help, Too!” and “Help Fight Polio!” appeared on the walls of stores and offices and in the corridors of schools across the country, posters of children in wheelchairs—a pretty little girl wearing leg braces shyly sucking her thumb, a clean-cut little boy with leg braces heroically smiling with hope—posters that made the possibility of getting the disease seem all the more frighteningly real to otherwise healthy children.”

Paul Longmore describes the post-war emergence of televised charity programming:

“The telethon was invented just after World War II by private health charities as a tool to tap into the emerging mass medium of broadcast television. “Telethon” is a portmanteau word combining “television” and “marathon.” The first “television marathon” aired in April 1949 on behalf of the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. Transmitted by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to twelve cities in the eastern United States and hosted by TV’s first major star, comedian Milton Berle, it was a broadcast sensation.”

A broadcast sensation indeed. Americans wanted to be generous to those in need and following the war people had disposable income for the first time in years. Helping the ill was understood to be unambiguously good, even a national trait.

This is how Jerry Lewis got his start with the Muscular Dystrophy telethon. His first was in 1956. HIs last came in 2010. What Lewis “got” about disability came from his formative years. He was being charitable. He didn’t want to hear from contrarians who felt there was more to disability than kids on crutches and cures. By 1981 the nation’s views about disability were growing more sophisticated. Longmore relates how Evan Kemp, a man with a neuromuscular condition, a Republican, and a civil rights attorney, and whose parents had helped to found the MDA, wrote in the New York Times that the telethon’s pity approach to fundraising” “bolstered social prejudice against people with disabilities.” Longmore writes:

“He (Kemp) accused it of dealing in stereotypes that only served to hinder their independence and alienate them from the rest of society. In addition, claimed Kemp, the telethon reinforced “the public’s tendency to equate handicap with total ‘hopelessness,’ ” thereby intensifying “the awkward embarrassment” of interpersonal interactions, as well as strengthening public fears and buttressing social barriers. Kemp called on the telethon to instead depict the countless examples of independent disabled people who worked, raised families, and actively participated in community life. This new message, he concluded, would “be a service to the disabled and to the country.”

Lewis didn’t respond kindly to his critics. He said famously on CBS “Sunday Morning” in response to hearing disability rights advocates had accused him of marketing televised pity: “Pity? You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!”

He also said: “It just kills me to think about these people getting publicity. These people are leeches. They all glommed on to being Jerry-bashers. What did they have before that? They’re disabled people who are so bitter at the bad hand they’ve been dealt that they have to take down somebody who’s doing good. There’s 19 of them, but these people can hurt what I have built for 45 years. There’s a million and a half people who depend on what I do!”I’ve raised one billion three hundred million dollars. These 19 people don’t want me to do that. They want me to stop now? Fuck them. Do it in caps. FUCK THEM.”

In Jerry Lewis’s case, thinking charitably and the charitable entertainment industry weren’t necessarily compatible. Defenders of Lewis, notably columnist Bob Greene, tried to assemble some scruples. Greene wrote: “Regardless of what you think of Lewis’ tactics and style, the one undisputed fact is that, for a few days at the end of each summer, he manages to make millions of people think about others less fortunate than themselves. You may be appalled at how he does it. … But you can’t stop thinking about what he wants you to think about… .”

In other words, “don’t shoot the messenger.”

The problem was—and is—that the disabled were not obstructive. The critics of Mr. Lewis asked for greater sophistication and nuance from his telethons. Jerry Lewis treated them with contempt.

Jerry wanted to call his poster children “Jerry’s Kids” and that was pretty much that. In his groundbreaking memoir “Miracle Boy Grows Up” Ben Mattlin writes about being an MDA “poster child” and points out how demeaned he felt, for even a kid knows when he’s being employed as a symbol, and a pejorative one at that:

“On a fall Saturday afternoon Mom takes me to a studio downtown—a large, mostly empty windowless space. At the back, under very bright lights, a quiet girl a few years older than I am stands awkwardly with the aid of crutches. She has short, dark hair and wears a short green pinafore dress that exposes leg braces. Mom says she’s the outgoing model. I should speak to her for tips about what it’s like to be a poster child.

I watch silently. The girl doesn’t do much, just stands there as a camera clicks. Then a stout man in a dull tan suit waves for Mom to bring me over. I’m parked in my wheelchair next to the girl. An even fatter man in shirtsleeves starts snapping photos of the two of us. Am I supposed to do something? Besides squint at the bright light, that is. After a while, we’re told we’re done. I wonder, is this what it means to be a poster child?”

The trouble is, that’s exactly what it meant.

Nice People, Disability, and the Neoliberal Campus

“Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”

― Naomi Shulman

As a disabled person I’ve never had luck with “nice people” since they tend to employ saccharine batting—their spun candy—as a shield of manners the aim of which is suffocation of cripples. One knows the type: a school administrator who, seeing a child with a wheelchair says: “We’re so lucky to have you here,” and then, two weeks later, tries to prevent that child from bringing her service dog to school.

You learn to get around it, fashioning your own brand of insistence, arguing for the rights of the blind, deaf, non-speaking, mobility challenged, neurodiversity inclusion—yes, though you despise the word “inclusion” since you know it comes from the 17th century by way of Latin inclusio(n-), from includere ‘shut in.’ In general one distrusts nouns  descending from verbs. Meanwhile “inclusion” is a choice word for neoliberals as it advertises “a place at the table” while it reinforces the system of separations embedded in the old verb. The “nice people” continue chattering. The university adopts inaccessible software for all it’s employees. Refuses to admit it. Gets pushed and pushed to fix the problem. Fixes the problem and publishes a news story about how they were interested in full inclusivity from the very start. Everyone is so nice nice. BTW: if there’s a word I dislike more than “includere” it’s “inclusivity” which has about it the whiff of the country club. ‘Inclusivity” means, “we’ve let you in, an we deserve some damn good press for having done it grudgingly.”

As I say, I’ve not had much luck with the nice folks. They reveal themselves. They flat out don’t like disability, the disabled, the lame and halt, and in their tricked out neoliberal meeting they’ll use disability as metaphor just as quickly as a vicious shop owner who doesn’t want your business because you have one of those damned disability dogs.

In university circles the myth is that the disabled are “complicated” or expensive. Forget the cripples pay as much for college as the apparently unencumbered. Forget that the disabled and their families have been estimated to have over 70 billion in discretionary income. (Oh dear, am I slipping from nice? I swear I’m trying to use the language of neoliberalism…) The cripples are complicated because they won’t stay “includere” and while we talk of inclusion we don’t want to make a habit of it.

And that’s the thing: neoliberal administrators at America’s colleges and universities think the world will “go back” to a former time if they just strangle the people and resources of the agora. We will “nice them to death” and get rid of faculty, problematic students, the humanities, the arts, oh, and disability services. We’ll do it by degrees. Because we’re nice. We’re incredibly nice.

 

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, or, Traveling with a Guide Dog

When, as I do, you travel everywhere with a guide dog public space becomes a confessional of sorts. It’s a rare day when a stranger doesn’t approach to say, “I had a dog like that once, but he died,” or, “Labradors, they’re the best dogs in the world, but mine’s dead.” The first time this happened I was a newbie guide dog user, alone, in the Pittsburgh airport, and a woman said, “I had a dog like that once, but someone poisoned it.” She had an overpowering minty odor and kept snapping her fingers. My dog and I ran away from her.

It took some time but I began to see these encounters as having nothing to do with dogs. Or the dog was simply a calling card. My guide dog Corky meant in the eyes of passersby that I was approachable and might well have a heart. A more sinister variant was that being blind they might believe I couldn’t escape—like a hapless passenger on the Greyhound. I chose not to believe the latter. I am, essentially, a boy scout, (OK, not really) but I do believe in kindness and I’m as naive as the next man, or woman, and what the Hell, I thought, it costs me next to nothing to talk to wounded, anomalous weirdoes.

Of course “next to nothing” is just faux metaphysics—it did cost me. You can’t absorb the griefs of subway riders and ballpark fans without grinding your bearings. Three years into guide dog life I understood that the village square is filled with Tennessee Williams characters, lots of Blanches and Stanleys whose hearts are so broken they’ll think nothing about approaching a blind man to talk about the deaths of their pets. And I saw that behind the stories of doggie demise were divorces, run away children, job losses, car accidents, so that I wanted to weep for our strangeness. This is a high gravity world.

As a poet this wasn’t big news to me. About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. Not only is it always occurring, but we’re invited to look away. Unless, that is, you go absolutely every place with a dog. On the airplane. In the shopping mall. Riding escalators. Then all bets are off. A guide dog user becomes a mark. In effect I became a walking minister. A circuit rider. My Finnish grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who preached to immigrant congregations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I saw Corky was my Model T Ford. The common street was our patch of souls.

I’m an irreverent fellow. But I couldn’t laugh at the unbidden, constant sadnesses of happenstance people. And I couldn’t let them dominate me as the price of listening. Nor could I let them ruin my days. Her dog had been poisoned. His dog lived to be fifteen but succumbed to joint disease. Her dog got stolen. His was shot by hunters. You’re sipping coffee. You’re sitting on a bench. The sorrowing come to you like birds.

The trick as I saw it, was to abandon belief in fairy tales. The guide dog schools like to say that with a dog the blind have newfound horizons, freedoms, opportunities, etc. They’re right. But one aspect of freedom is that you’ve become a citizen like anyone, and yes, because of your dog you’re interesting. I listened. Still listen. Just enough. Then I say, “I’ve got to get back to reading,” and put on my headphones. Or tap my talking watch, then say, “nice talking, but Ive got to go.”

My guide dog brought me love. It cuts both ways: I’ll be your confessor, I’ll be on my way.

The Washington Post’s Distorted View of Rural Disability

The Washington Post has published an article that purports to examine a steady increase in disability Social Security claims by poor families. Under the heading “Disabled America” the headline bellows: “One Family, Four generations of disability benefits. Will it continue?” If you’re disabled like me and you’ve a sense of disability history you have to shudder since the half-rhetorical question evokes an edict by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who infamously wrote: “three generations of imbeciles are enough” in Buck vs. Bell, a 1927 ruling that upheld the right of Virginia to sterilize “mental defectives” without their consent. (You can read more about the case here.) In short, the Post’s headline raises the specter of eugenics whether the writer or editor knows it or not. Either way its fair to say “shame on them.”

Shame also for committing the journalistic equivalent of what I call “Betsyism” for Betsy DeVos who presides loudly over our education system without experience, knowledge, or curiosity. Only Betsyism, the willful extrusion of facts for ideological purposes explains the Post’s perfervid and ill informed article. Why is it ill informed? Because like other mainstream media forays into the subject of disability and Social Security there’s only a singular narrative: the US is filled with fake cripples who are stealing from good old you and me–a story that received considerable traction two years ago when the redoubtable radio hipster Ira Glass rebroadcast (without journalistic fact checking) a spurious story from Planet Money asserting phony social security disability claims are officially out of control in America. The provenance of the story hardly mattered to Glass, who, when confronted with its falsehoods simply declared himself a journalist and shrugged. It mattered not at all to the doyen of “This American Life” that the tale was largely the dream child of a notorious rightwing think tank, or that the outright falsehoods contained in the broadcast might do tremendous damage to the disabled. Falsehoods about the powerless play well.

One also remember’s NPR’s broader foray into this terrain when Chana Joffee-Walt launched a blockbuster series of stories about disability benefits. Her stories argued there’s a massive fraud taking place, that the number of people claiming disability benefits has gone up alarmingly. What’s of interest from a disability studies perspective is that Joffee-Walt offered (as a means of laying the foundation for her story) that there’s no medical diagnosis for disability–a matter that she found shocking.

Disability isn’t a medical condition for obvious reasons: the limitation of function that renders a person “disabled” depends on multiple factors–some have etiologies, some have a great deal to do with structural and social barriers. This is why scholars who study disability do so through both medical and social analyses. A Betsey-esque analysis lacks this sophistication and suggests poor people with disabilities should be held as suspect for not being–well, rich. Or as Herman Melville put it: “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.”

The Post’s article (which I won’t summarize) argues that poor people beget intellectually disabled children—actually pray to have them—for kids with bi-polar disorder or who are on the so-called autism spectrum are trailer park cash cows. A la Betsyism if you want people to believe an elitist narrative, startle them with the nefariousness of poverty as Reagan did with his mythological story about a welfare cheat who owned several Cadillacs. If you want readers to evince a collective moue of disgust tell them about real life hillbillies who are just like the characters in Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love—circus performers who’ll do anything they can to have crippled and deformed children—this is the insidious face of American poverty. Don’t tell your readers that impoverishment increases the likelihood of illness, that the lack of access to prenatal care and education increases the probability of childhood disability. Don’t tell them that the absence of accommodations in pre-school and all subsequent schooling assures failure for children with intellectual disabilities. Don’t tell them. Just insinuate the poor are up to dirty tricks. Don’t remind your readers that Adolf Hitler called the disabled “useless eaters.”

Denied a Cab Ride, Grieving for Who We Are…

Tomorrow I’m heading to the University of Michigan to participate in a program on accessible publishing hosted by the UM Press and the University’s library. As a blind writer who teaches I know as much as almost anyone about how difficult it often remans to get access to books, journals, online publications, websites, software platforms—it’s a long list. So my hat is off the the folks in Ann Arbor for taking seriously the challenges of access for people with disabilities and putting together an ambitious workshop on accessibility.

In a mood of warm anticipation, packing for my trip from Syracuse to Detroit, I was wholly unprepared for the mean spirited encounter I had by phone with a cab company in Ann Arbor this afternoon. Just recounting what happened is an exercise so objectionable I’m forced to be brisk as the altercation was nasty.

I told the man who answered the phone I needed a ride from Detroit-Ft. Wayne airport to the U of Michigan. He was agreeable. Then I said I had a guide dog. He was disagreeable. He said:

“These dogs are stinky, they go to the bathroom, they’re dirty, I can’t have them.”

“Not the first time this has happened to me,” I thought.

“Guide dogs are allowed everywhere,” I said.

“I don’t care, now you’re going to tell me all about your rights,” he said. (Sneering, he was. Your rights…uttered as if I was some whiny baby.

“Well yes,” I said, “it’s a violation of state and federal laws to deny a blind person and his dog a cab ride.”

“I don’t care,” he said.

“You should care,” I said. “It will become a big story. Plus there’s a huge fine associated with this.”

“I don’t care,” he said.

“This will become a news story,” I said. “I myself write for newspapers like the New York Times…)

It’s hard to describe the effect this had on him. He began shouting that Donald Trump had won the presidency and “you people” (apparently meaning blind New York Times readers) “don’t matter anymore.”

He was absolutely vicious and crowing about how people like me don’t matter.

I said, “well, I’m going to turn you in to the Department of Justice.”

He said he didn’t care.

I hung up.

I went upstairs to tell my wife.

Five minutes later he called me back.

I answered.

He said, “I have allergies.”

He’d apparently shared his conversation with someone else. This was his effort to pull his leg out of a hole.

“It doesn’t matter, you still violated my civil rights,” I said.

He began abusing me again. Hot, geothermic mistreatment.

I hung up.

I posted his company’s name and phone number and a description of what I’d experienced on Facebook.

I didn’t know the man’s name.

He apparently received dozens of phone calls throughout the afternoon, including some from the press.

He’s now claiming victim status. He has allergies. He can’t be expected to take a passenger with a service dog.

The law is very clear on this matter. He doesn’t have to. All he has to do is find me a cab that “will” take me.

He chose contempt and mean-spirited bullying.

Some people on Facebook have messaged me to say he now regrets the matter.

Me too.

Whatever happened to saying, “hey, I know all about having a physical condition! I have one myself. I can’t help you but I’ll get you someone who can.”

Instead he went into a rebarbative snarl and wouldn’t stop.

He apparently told someone on FB that I ruined his day.

I have in fact filed a formal complaint with the Department of Justice and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

I’m still shaking. I want to close by saying I’ve heard promptly from the U of Michigan. They’re as upset as I am.

Is Trump’s ascendancy now a patented script?

If you hail from a historically marginalized group you know the answer.

 

 

 

More About Teaching with a Dog

I knew one in five of my students likely had a disability; that one in four had probably been assaulted sexually; that approximately 40% had alcoholic parents or relatives. One can’t teach without knowing such things—at least not be teaching properly. Could being disabled “before them” and working with Corky foster communicative possibilities beyond merely inserting my life, my story—the professor as “other?” I wasn’t sure at first. You walk into a classroom with a dog, it’s like a joke.

Since service animals can’t be ignored I said: “for Corky the past is prologue.” “She’s more well adjusted than most of us.”

“A guide dog’s childhood is impressive,” I said. “Love, encouragement, modest rules, then more love, more encouragement…”

“Who among us gets to have that?” I asked. No one raised a hand.

So here’s what I did. I invited students to coffee klatches with Corky. It was kumbaya. And so what?

We created a small circle around a dog.

I took the harness off.

Corky circled putting her head on people’s knees.

“In order for ideas to have value,” I said, “one must feel secure enough to be inquisitive.”

My coffee drinkers agreed this wasn’t easy.

We were newly minted adepts of John Dewey’s pragmatism, hugging a dog, insisting our everyday experiences mattered.

I will not tell my students stories.

But sometimes at night walking to the bus I thought of them bearing up under their burdens and of how they still desired lives of trust.

This is no small thing when you feel it. No small thing….

Teaching with a Dog at My Feet (Part One)

I returned to academe with a dog by my side. Entering a class at Ohio State students observed us with wonder. It was hard to know if they were surprised by a blind professor or by the sight of a dog, or both. “Oh!” cried three women in the front row. “Oh, I miss my dog,” said a boy.

“The only perk to being blind is you can take your dog anywhere,” I said.

Teaching with a dog at my feet was wonderful. All dogs radiate comfort and make the space around them congenial. They’ve been sharing this with humans for 30,000 years.

One afternoon when discussing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—one of the bloodier sections, Corky began moaning in her sleep.

“This even disturbs the dogs,” I said. There was nervous laughter.

Over time I saw how having a dog in the classroom changed teaching for me. It wasn’t just the shtick of the thing—as when students were silent and I’d say, “Well Corky knows the answer…”

It was a shy, unanticipated gracefulness as for the first time in my academic life I felt even-tempered and unflustered. Silence was good. I didn’t have to fill every gap in conversation but could afford to wait for a a shy student to offer up a Socratic answer.

And if a student was distressed he or she could have a dog petting session. Education is painful, steeped in competitions, often without evident maps or rules. “Dogs. Another natural place for dogs,” I thought.

We do our best learning when we’ve bonded, when we’re safe, when we experience intimacy with thought. We don’t learn well by arbitrary pressure and force. Dogs bond with us when they stare into our eyes, releasing in us oxytocin, the bonding hormone—lord knows it works, our pulse rates drop, our breathing steadies.

My own as well. When the teacher’s breathing is steady the whole room changes for the better. It wasn’t zazen, formal Zen Buddhist breathing, but still a slower more invitational mode of breath.

When a man or woman is breathing well, they like themselves better. Running. Sitting. Dog’s eyes. Even the fluorescent lights in a cheap university classroom won’t bother you.