the kids are all right

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Jerry's Orphans are a group of disability rights activists who organize actions against the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. Jerry's Orphans believe that the annual telethon relies on "the pity approach" to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, undermining the message of the disability civil rights movement for millions of viewers each year.

Mike was inspired to found Jerry's Orphans, along with his sister Cris and wife Anna, during Labor Day weekend of 1990. Every year, Parade Magazine gives its Labor Day weekend cover to the MDA and the Jerry Lewis telethon. This particular year, Jerry Lewis wrote his own "first person account" of what it is like to be a person with Muscular Dystrophy, or rather his idea of what it would be like. The essay was called If I Had Muscular Dystrophy. He wrote, "I decided after 41 years of battling this curse that cripples children of all ages, that I would put myself into that chair, that steel imprisonment that has long been deemed the dsytrophic child's plight."

From there, Lewis went on to reveal the "inner monologue" of this imagined boy. He wrote:

I know the courage it takes to get on the court with other cripples and play wheelchair basketball. I'd like to play basketball like normal, healthy, vital, energetic people. I just can't half-do anything. Either it's all the way or forget it.

When I sit back and think a little more rationally, I realize my life is half, so I must learn to do things halfway. I just have to learn to try to be good at being half a person. I may be a full human being in my heart and soul, yet I am still half a person.

Mike couldn't believe what he was reading--Jerry Lewis thinks that having MD makes you half a person? He knew that people all over the country would read Lewis' article, watch the telethon and come away with the idea that people with MD deserve pity and charity, not the basic civil rights he'd spent years fighting for as a disability rights activist. He immediately took the article home and showed it to his wife Anna and sister Cris, and they all decided it was time to do something. As former poster children for the MDA in Chicago, Cris and Mike felt that a protest would be particularly interesting coming from them - now they were no longer "Jerry's Kids" but "Jerry's Orphans." So they started staging actions at the local broadcast of the telethon in Chicago in 1991.

Other Jerry's Orphans sprouted up around the country and almost instantly there was a nationwide network of grassroots groups questioning the tactices of the telethon. People organized protests against the "pity fest," as one activist called it, in New York, Charleston, Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. There was also an explosion of media attention, with articles about Jerry's Orphans in everything from Vanity Fair to the National Enquirer.