Jerry Lewis kicked off his 26th Labor Day telethon Sunday night with an effort to blunt criticism that he portrays the disabled in a "degrading image" that garners money and pity but promotes the belief that handicapped men and woman cannot successfully hold jobs or otherwise manage in society.
"I've never used the terms disabled and handicapped," Lewis said of his star-studded pitches for donations for children with muscular dystrophy.
"Please, I'm begging for survival," Lewis said in opening the show. "I want my kids to live. . . . I don't ask you to pity them. I'm asking you to keep them alive."
Small groups of demonstrators in wheelchairs protested in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where some wore banners declaring "Jerry's Telethon, Annual Ritual of Shame," and "Jerry Maligns the Disabled" while chanting "power not pity."
They protested what they described as the high telethon costs and depiction of those afflicted with muscular dystrophy as "helpless human beings."
Despite the criticism, telethon officials hoped to surpass last year's record of $44,172,186 in pledges during the 21 1/2-hour show dubbed "A Galaxy of Stars." The telethon, which runs until 3:30 p.m. today, has raised $570.7 million during the past 26 years. Corporate contributions, which are not included in the telethon totes, have pushed the total past $1 billion.
Lewis was upbeat about the strides researchers have made in the battle against muscular dystrophy and related diseases.
"We've made more strides in the past five years than the previous 42 combined," Lewis said.
Jerald Friedman, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. said independent audits have shown that the association has one of the lowest overhead costs of five top charities, including the American Heart Assn.