Protest Pity!

Posted on 10 January 2009. Filed under: Advocacy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Whether you’re Deaf or hearing; old or young; poor or rich; have muscular dystrophy or not; gay or straight; male or female; have disabilities or not—chances are, you would never want someone to pity you. Yet, too many of us think pity is okay as long as we do it to someone else. Meaning someone who leads such a pathetic life that they “deserve” pity. And, not so incidentally, charity.

Jerry Lewis is someone who perpetuates pity against all people with disabilities–and, yes, against Deaf people and Autistic people as well, even if not all identify as having disabilities–every time he runs his annual telethon for people with muscular dystrophy on Labor Day weekend. For his annual task of attacking the dignity of millions of people, Jerry is about to receive a humanitarian award.

There is now an on-line petition campaign against Jerry’s humanitarian award. If you already know you want to sign it, then skip the rest of this post and follow this link to the petition signature page! (Be sure to use the Comments line to explain, in your own words, why you support the petition. This will vastly strengthen the impact of your signature.)

Not sure yet? I will explain more about the petition and why all Deaf people, Autistic people, and people with disabilities should sign it. But, first, I will share a few words on why we all should take a stand against the destructive force of pity where ever we find it–whether it’s perpetuated by Jerry or by someone else (see “Protest Pity“). Then I will talk about why Jerry does not deserve a humanitarian award (see “Protest Jerry’s Pity-a-Thon“). Last, I will explain about the humanitarian award and the effort to protest it (see “Join the Petition Campaign!“)

Protest Pity

Those of us who are Deaf, or who are Autistic, or who have muscular dystrophy, or who have disabilities, all know first hand how pity can damage lives. It undermines our efforts to seek out access to our environment; to full, independent lives; to our basic human rights; and to our fundamental freedoms. People who “pity” us don’t think about things like supplying us with closed captions (for Deaf people), or a quiet, dim environment (for Autistic people with sensory issues), or ramps (for wheelchair users). People who pity us are more interested in putting a quarter or two in our begging cup (because, surely, we must have one, don’t we?) so they can go away feeling good about themselves. Never mind whether our lives are truly improved by the charity they bestow upon us. Because, unlike empathy, pity doesn’t really have anything to do with providing the kind of help that people necessarily want and need to receive. Pity, and the charity it triggers, is really about the giver and their need to see themselves as kind and generous. By definition, it is never about the recipient.

Pity can frequently masquerade as more benign emotions such as “sympathy” or (better) “empathy.” But unlike empathy, pity dehumanizes the target. We feel empathy with our equals: empathy implies that we identify with the pain of someone we perceive as being mostly like ourselves. Empathy also implies that we believe the target deserves all the same kind of support we would want for ourselves if we were in the same situation. But we feel pity only for people we perceive as being, not just different from us, but beneath us. Maybe even contemptible, or less than human. Empathy binds people together and drives people to fight for things like justice, equality, and human rights. Pity separates us and stratifies us into “superior” beings (people who should never be pitied) and “inferior” beings (people who should be pitied, or who should be passive recipients of charity).

When we empathize with someone, we recognize their fundamental dignity. We may not necessarily share all their values and interests, but we acknowledge that they deserve to have access to all the same services, human rights, and freedoms that we do. If someone we empathize with is denied the right to informed consent to medical care (because they are denied the interpreters they need to understand the treatment options being offered to them), or the right to read an important brochure on HIV/AIDS prevention (because it is not available in Braille), then we become enraged on their behalf. We take as a given that they deserve the same things that we do. And we stand in solidarity with them when they fight for their human rights.

However, if we pity them rather than empathize with them, then it doesn’t occur to us that the barriers they face to full participation in society are a travesty of justice and human rights. Instead, we simply say, “How sad that they have disabilities.” Then perhaps we throw a few dollars in their general direction so we can move on and forget about them. Pity does not inspire people to support enduring equal access to the environment. It only inspires short-term, feel-good charity.

Protest Jerry Lewis’ Pity-a-Thon

If pity is such a terrible thing, then why do some people, like Jerry Lewis, do so much to encourage it? It can be tempting to fall into the trap of promoting pity for two reasons. One, too many people still confuse pity with its more productive counterpart, empathy. Two, pity does happen to be very effective at luring people to donate millions of dollars, in charity–which can do a lot of short-term good, even if the pity itself can do so much harm.

Hence, Jerry’s annual “pity-a-thon,” which has raised enormous amounts of money to support medical research. However, many people question whether the harm caused by Jerry’s pity-a-thon justifies the ends. They point out that events such as Jerry’s telethon can generate massive amounts of pity that last well beyond the event ends, with all its destructive implications. Last year, dozens of Deaf people, hearing people, Autistic people, non-autistic people, and people with various disabilities wrote about why they oppose Jerry’s telethon: you can read those blog posts at And in case you were wondering: yes, there are people with muscular dystrophy who don’t like Jerry’s telethon either.

Join the Petition Campaign!

So what about Jerry’s upcoming humanitarian award, and the petition campaign protesting it? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that it will give Jerry Lewis its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscar Awards ceremony on February 22, 2009. This is largely for his work raising money by entrenching negative, stereotyped attitudes toward people with disabilities. Most people with disabilities do not oppose the need for more medical research into muscular dystrophy, or for services for people with muscular dystrophy. What we object to is the destructive means by which Jerry raises these funds.

Read and sign the petition at Please be sure to use the Comments line to explain, in your own words, why you support the petition. This will vastly increase the impact of your signature (because it shows you feel very strongly about this subject.)

If you’re on Facebook, you can join the Facebook group organizing efforts to protest Jerry’s award at

(If you’re not in Facebook yet, it’s pretty easy to set up an account for yourself, and it is free.)

Please do blog the petition campaign (be sure to link to the petition and to the Facebook group!) And please do twitter it as well.

You can increase the visibility of this blog post by “Digging” it–go to, then click on where it says “Digg it” (if you don’t already have a Digg account then you may need to create one, which takes just a few minutes).


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10 Responses to “Protest Pity!”

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Excellent breakdown of the difference between pity and empathy regarding these telethons. It’s a difficult subject. I wanted to let you know I Dugg your story at the link I posted, and I encourage others to Digg it as well to help spread the word.

Interesting video called “Thumbs Down to Pity”

thanks for posting this. today i think i’ll make a button we can put on our websites to link to the petition.

darkintheglow — Thank you for “digging” it! I’ve now incorporated the link into the post!

Bill, thanks for linking to the interesting video!

And cripchick, I will be looking forward to the button you make!

[…] Here at ReunifyGally, I discuss the difference between “pity” and “empathy” and why pity is always harmful whereas empathy is not. Links to the petition campaign. […]

[…] Posts Protest Pity!Email Obama!Help Improve Cell Phones for Deaf People! (And also for Deaf-Blind People)Cell Phone […]

[…] People who pity people with disabilities—or Deaf people—usually never think to challenge the assumption that we should be passive recipients of charity. They don’t think to question why we must still confront barriers to full participation in society, for example the lack of captions or sign language interpreters in many contexts where we need them.  Fueling pitying attitudes undermines progress toward social equality for people with ALL disabilities. And, yes, the same pity also hurts Deaf people, INCLUDING Deaf people who abhor the idea that Deafness could equate “disability.” Individuals who pity people with disabilities may be more resistant to explanations about Deaf culture and the important cultural and linguistic issues that affect Deaf people because they are too busy pitying Deaf people for being unable to hear.  People who respect the fundamental dignity and human rights of people with disabilities will also be more likely to listen to Deaf people when we talk about the importance of ASL and promoting pride in Deaf culture.  People who pity spend less time listening because they mistakenly believe that pity is a noble emotion that they need to preserve by distancing themselves from the real lives, feelings, and beliefs of the people they are trying to pity.  (These people need to learn the difference between pity and empathy, […]

Interesting post and comments. I always like hearing different points of view, as thinking about things in a different way helps me reconsider my own positions on matters. The controversy over this situation reminds me of a book I recently read, That Went Well, which focuses on a family that chooses to keep their special needs daughter at home. (It’s written by her sister.) The family rallies the community and state to act on behalf of all children with special needs. There are some funny parts behind the methods the family used to get things moving, program-wise. It’s a very honest memoir — heartwarming, as well. What I was thinking was, would you consider this pity? It’s not, to me at all, because this is the family doing the rallying. THey’re living the situation, not coming at it from up on top the mountaintop, so to speak.


Thank you for leaving your comment here.

In looking briefly at the book summary and review at the web site you linked to, I agree that what the sister did was not a “pitying” approach. A “pitying” approach assumes that the person is hopeless, helpless, inevitably dependent on others and cannot possibly lead a happy life unless they are “cured.” A more empowering approach (the so-called “social model” of disability) assumes that the person has the capacity to lead a happy life on their own terms, and has the right to do so to the extent that they are able. The social model assumes that it is the environment that needs to change to accommodate the needs of the person with the disabilities, not the other way around.

You might also find it interesting to read further about the difference between the so-called “medical” model and “social” models of disability. Here are some (longish) articles on the topic:

Basically, though, the medical model assumes that disability means there is something wrong with the person with disabilities that must be fixed. If it can’t be fixed, then the person should be hidden away so others don’t have to see someone who is “broken.” Or else they should try to appear as “normal” as possible for the comfort of other people, even if pretending to be “normal” means they are left very unhappy. (For example, deaf people may be denied the right to learn and use sign language and must instead speak and lipread full time. Some deaf people can do okay with this approach, but others cannot communicate with people this way and would then feel left out). Under the medical model, people are more likely to pity the person with disabilities because they don’t see any other way to integrate them into society if they cannot be “fixed” or cannot fake normalcy.

Under the social model, the assumption is that most of the barriers that most people with disabilities experience is actually in their ENVIRONMENT. Thus, the environment must be changed (eg, wheelchair ramps, closed captions, Braille, etc. should be provided as needed). Or, policies and customs may need to be revised (for example, by keeping a child with disabilities at home, as with the girl in the book you reference, instead of putting them in an institution). The social model is less likely to involve pity because it acknowledges that most of the “limitations” many people with disabilities experience are actually created by other people and the environment around them, not by the impairments.

I have noticed that over the course of making a relationship with real estate homeowners, youíll be able to come to understand that, in every real estate transaction, a commission rate is paid. Finally, FSBO sellers tend not to ìsaveî the commission rate. Rather, they fight to win the commission simply by doing a strong agentís work. In the process, they shell out their money and time to accomplish, as best theyíre able to, the tasks of an realtor. Those duties include revealing the home via marketing, representing the home to all buyers, creating a sense of buyer emergency in order to induce an offer, making arrangement for home inspections, controlling qualification checks with the bank, supervising maintenance, and facilitating the closing of the deal.

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