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July 26, 2001 -- Reports from Jerry Lewis's manager say the comedian will "cut back the hours he spends hosting his annual Labor Day Telethon" -- due to illness. Activists believe the controversial comedian is being eased out of the Telethon due to his Neanderthal attitudes about "cripples." Lewis is 75.


Read Laura Hershey's commentary


MDA apologizes; so does Jerry. But the AP story that ran Friday night missed the mark:
"Comedian Jerry Lewis ... apologized Friday for referring to the wheelchair-bound as "cripple" and saying people "donate out of pity." While it's true that most people in wheelchairs don't like the term "cripple," it was Lewis's "stay in your house!" that outraged activists. Many were angered, as well, by the AP's use of "wheelchair-bound," a term the AP's own reporters Stylebook terms a no-no.

It was the AP who wrote that the problem was the word "cripple"; In fact, neither the MDA's nor Lewis's apologies ever say exactly what specific remark they are apologizing for.

"I'm telling people about a child in trouble! If it's pity, we'll get some money. I'm just giving you facts!"

"Pity? [If] you don't want to be pitied because you're a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in ya house!" Jerry Lewis, CBS News Sunday Morning, May 20, 2001 | Hear Jerry say it

Those of us who heard the words couldn't believe it -- or rather, we could. Lewis has been fighting with disability activists since 1990 when the nationwide protest against his Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon heated up, spearheaded by former MDA poster children calling themselves "Jerry's Orphans." Lewis can be mean when it comes to anyone suggesting he's wrong.

Soon a .wav audio file of Lewis on "CBS News Sunday Morning" was online. Activists noticed right away that in the version of the May 20 interview posted on the CBS site, Lewis's comments had been edited to be inoffensive.

But his real words were available for all to hear. Responding to CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner's question about protesters, Lewis spit, "I'm telling people about a child in trouble! If it's pity, we'll get some money. I'm just giving you facts!" Barely pausing, he added, "Pity? [If] you don't want to be pitied because you're a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in ya house!" HEAR LEWIS IN HIS OWN WORDS

Activists this year are vowing to make the fight against Lewis's Neanderthal attitudes about disabled people and disability rights bigger than ever. Overnight, a website devoted to the cause was launched by disability writer Laura Hershey, at http://www.cripcommentary.com/LewisVsDisabilityRights.html. About.com's Gary Presley provided full coverage of the issue at the about.com disabilities site.

"Jerry Lewis raised $54.6 million dollars in 21.5 hours last year" for the MDA, said Alabama Governor's Office on Disability Director Barbara F. Crozier. "Imagine how powerful he could be if he had reached that many people with the message of inclusion" and disability rights.

"Americans think Jerry Lewis, in his work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, does the best job of any celebrity promoting a charity or cause," says a May 23 PR Newswire story. The Slay Media Access Study showed 36 percent of Americans picking Lewis as the entertainer whose cause is the most recognizable.

"The study, released by Slay Public Relations (formerly Martin Public Relations), shows Americans think celebrities have the easiest access to the media (37 percent). Celebrities beat out politicians (26 percent) and athletes (19 percent). Social causes score low among the issues Americans think garner the most media attention. Social causes at four percent are behind political issues and sports at 24 percent each.

" 'The study shows that Americans believe celebrities can help unlock the door to the media for social causes,' said Joe Slay, president of Slay Public Relations. "Three out of every ten Americans surveyed say there are not enough celebrities helping worthwhile causes in the media.' "

More about the telethon from Ragged Edge

Our overview story, "Jerry Lewis, Jerry's Orphans and The Telethon," is in our Ragged Edge anthology. From amazon.com

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