Jerry Lewis’ Mixed Legacy On Disability
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Jerry Lewis’ Mixed Legacy On Disability

Lewis raised incredible amounts of money for muscular dystrophy, but portrayed people with the disease as "poster children."

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the President of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. She works regularly with disability organizations, national, state and local policy leaders, workforce development professionals, media, employers, philanthropists, celebrities and faith-based organizations in order to expand opportunities for people with disabilities. Mizrahi has led numerous national polls and brought significant visibility to the issues of America’s 56 million citizens with disabilities. She is the co-author of a major toolkit on best practices on employment for people with disabilities and frequently hosts webinars on this topic. Mizrahi has published dozens of op-eds and publications on disability issues, including in USA Today, Huffington Post, The Hill and other publications. Dyslexic herself, she also knows what it means to parent a child with multiple disabilities. Reach her at

Jerry Lewis' star at the Hollywood Walk Of Fame in Los Angeles, California, USA. Wikimedia Commons/Dietmar Rabich
Jerry Lewis' star at the Hollywood Walk Of Fame in Los Angeles, California, USA. Wikimedia Commons/Dietmar Rabich

Over 5 decades, Jerry Lewis raised money to help people with disabilities. Unintentionally, he also harmed them.

No one had a bigger heart for people with physical disabilities than comic genius Jerry Lewis. But by using “poster children” as props, he undermined the fact that people with disabilities also have ABILITIES and should be empowered, and not pitied.

What people see and hear impacts what they think and feel about themselves and others like them. The Jerry Lewis telethon came from a place of good will, and did a lot of good for medical science. But it also set back attitudes for decades.

Like how ‘Will and Grace’ and ‘Modern Family’ helped to change perceptions of the LGBTQ community, an increase in positive, diverse and authentic portrayals of people with disabilities on television and film can help to end stigmas and advance opportunities for people with disabilities.

If we want to increase inclusion of people with disabilities in life, we can start on the screen. When people see it, they can be it. Instead of being Jerry Lewis’ “poster children” for pity and raising money, people with disabilities can and should be shown for the abilities they have. There are easy ways to work towards that goal and not every role must be the lead. Actors with disabilities could easily play roles that neither hide nor emphasize their disability. The doctor who uses a wheelchair, the waiter who has a prosthetic leg, the scientist who has cerebral palsy. Given that twenty percent of people have a disability it is also only natural to include people with disabilities in crowd shots.

At times there is a tension between authenticity and entertaining storytelling. We know in this industry that entertainment will win out. We also know that Hollywood can do better. By having diverse talent both in front of and behind the camera, entertainers can bring the best stories to audiences. Just like Hollywood has made an effort to be intentional about increasing diversity in other groups, it must work to include people with disabilities that stretch across all ethnic, racial, and gender boundaries.

Including people with disabilities isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good for the bottom line. Hollywood has the potential to connect with a large and loyal audience as 1 in 5 Americans has a disability. Indeed the majority of Americans have a loved one with a disability and they want to see them on screen. ‘Speechless’, ‘Finding Dory’, and ‘Born This Way’ all prove that you can do good and do well at the same time.

People with disabilities bring unique characteristics and talents. Marlee Matlin is Deaf, Selena Gomez has lupus, Stevie Wonder is blind, and Whoopi Goldberg is dyslexic. All have undeniable talent.

Our nation was founded on the principle that anyone who works hard should be able to get ahead in life. People with disabilities deserve the opportunity to work in Hollywood, and be seen for their abilities, just like anyone else.


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