As far back as I can remember, Jerry Lewis has been hosting his annual Labor Day weekend telethon. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever watched more than two minutes of it, despite considering this tradition a generous gesture.
I’ve never taken the time to learn of his initial motivations. I always just assumed he was a man with a big heart and a desire to help hurting kids. I’m also not aware of how much money he’s raised for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, but assume it’s in the billions of dollars. And I don’t even know very much about the MDA, but just by its mission, I’ve always considered it a worthy organization.
This week while I was wandering about the internet, I came across several sites which were adamant in their opposition to the MDA Telethon. There was a common theme running throughout the discussions. All of the sites were hosted by disabled people who were offended that Jerry Lewis, according to them, plays on the viewer’s emotions and basically guilt’s them into giving to the MDA. They cited how common it is for the telethon to show cute little children in various stages of challenge.
At the heart of this discussion and opposition is their desire to be respected and not pitied. They seek equality not sympathy.
My son would agree. We’ve been in situations where people have patted him on the head and smiled as if he was a cute puppy. It frustrates and saddens him. In fact, he’s told me there are times when he wants to kick the person or run them over with his chair.
It should go without saying that we need to respect those with disabilities and treat them as we would any other individual with whom we interact. Walking up to someone with a disability and treating an adult as if they are a child, is just about the most disrespectable thing someone can do.
But how does a non-profit organization devoted to highlighting the needs of physically challenged people adequately communicate the dire nature of the condition without framing it in a personal and emotional way? I used to listen to a non-profit radio station. I called it “K-beg”. Those weren’t its call letters, but I was always annoyed by the seemingly endless series of pledge drives and that when they didn’t raise the funds they needed [which seemed to be all the time] the station manager would break-in and announce their imminent demise. I finally stopped listening, but now I wonder, what else could they have done?
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 spurred people to give and rightfully give generously. There is a strong current of compassion in America. As we’ve seen recently, hurricanes and tornadoes bring out the best of all of us. Helping to rebuild or giving to efforts to help victims is natural to all of us.
But what if the thing you want to fix will take fifty years of research? What if there are going to be victims that never recover or need assistance for a lifetime? Until a cure is found, assistance will need to be given. Progress will be slow and methodical, not quick and easy to measure.
If this is the case, how do you motivate people to give consistently without properly framing the need in human terms? As most non-profits will tell you, you have to connect with your constituents and get them to see the need and feel emotionally attached to your mission. If most people only responded to a logical argument, half of the non-profits in the world would be forced to close and the other half would be taking care of all the needs in the world.
I feel strongly about our mission. We want to make a difference for the parents of special needs children. And I am emotional when I speak of this mission. When I speak on behalf of Need Project Inc., I do so hoping others feel as I do, and want to help these families as well. And when it’s over, I feel drained because of the emotion I put into my passion. I don’t want to offend anybody, but if anything other than emotion works, I would like to know.
I won’t argue with those who are disabled about how the MDA Telethon makes them feel. I wouldn’t take away from them the want to be respected. I wish we could reach the entire world with a message of the need to respect those with disabilities. But when people with good intentions cross paths with those with an obvious sensitivity to the subject, I just think we need to give a little grace to those who are trying to help.