Poster boy's mother rebuts criticism of telethon


A freckle-faced 5-year-old from Parkville will be named the Muscular Dystrophy Association's National Poster Child during this weekend's Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon -- and the boy's mother is worried.

Kathy Fallon is not anxious about how her son, Lance, will react to the attention of the nationally televised event. "He takes everything in stride," she says.

Rather, she is concerned about reduced contributions because of critics who claim the annual fund raising event demeans the disabled.

"I have a hard time with somebody trying to stop a cause helping so many people. What they're saying could cause people not to give," Mrs. Fallon said yesterday in a telephone interview from Las Vegas, where the telecast will originate.

Critics of the telethon -- including some former MDA poster children who have dubbed themselves "Jerry's Orphans" -- say that the event, with its references to "Jerry's kids" and emphasis on children, perpetrates a harmful and outdated stereotype of people with disabilities as helpless and childlike. They have planned protests against the telethon in several cities.

Local disability rights activists are planning a Labor Day protest at either the studios of WMAR-TV (Channel 2) -- which is broadcasting the telethon from 11:25 p.m. Sunday until 6:30 p.m. Monday -- or at White Marsh Mall, where the station will air some remote, local cut-ins, a spokeswoman said.

"It's exploiting people with disabilities and feeding the stigma that they are pitiful, helpless people," said Lillibeth Navarro, spokeswoman for Baltimoreans Against Disability Discrimination.

"We are not against people giving to the disability community to empower us. But the idea of charity -- of helping this poor cripple -- is outmoded now," she added.

WMAR was aware of criticisms of the telethon but was broadcasting it because "We feel the good outweighs the bad," said public relations director Maria Velleggia.

Last night, Mr. Lewis, who began the annual telethon in New York in the 1950s, was to respond to the critics in a rare interview on ABC's "Prime Time Live."

"I do very good work. No one can tell me differently," said Mr. Lewis, whose telethon last year raised $45 million for the MDA.

Mrs. Fallon also defended the telethon and the use of children on posters and on the show. She denounced the critics as a "bunch of extremists."

"I think it's vitally important that there is a face people can associate with the cause they're giving to," she said. "Maybe children do pierce the heart of people a little more. I have no problem taking this route if it makes people dig a little deeper."

Mrs. Fallon's husband, Chris, is an engineer with AAI Corp. Besides Lance, the couple has three other children, ages 3 through 9. Last year, the Fallon family was one of several profiled on the telethon.

Mrs. Fallon said that Lance, who has been the Maryland MDA Poster Child for the past two years, has received more than $10,000 worth of medical equipment and treatment in the last three years.

"I don't feel Lance is exploited. He understands what he's doing. He appreciates the help," she said.

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