'Telethons' book likely to disrupt notions about charitable giving and disabled people

A smiling, bespectacled Paul K. Longmore in front of a green chalkboard

Paul K. Longmore (1946-2010), founder of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at SF State.

During the second half of the 20th century, millions of Americans gathered around their televisions during weekend-long, celebrity-studded variety shows that raised billions of dollars for disability-related charities. 

But "Telethons: Spectacle, Disability, and the Business of Charity," a posthumously published book by Paul K. Longmore, argues that the cultural phenomenon that many dismissed as kitschy was helpful but also heightened stigma for people living with disabilities. Longmore, a professor of history at SF State for almost two decades, created the Institute on Disability in 1996, which at the time was one of the first of its kind. It was later named to memorialize its founder, who died in 2010.

"'Telethons' teaches us how to think about disability as a social justice issue by offering provocative insights on big business, body image, the U.S. government, popular culture and disability rights activism," said Catherine Kudlick, professor of history and director of the Longmore Institute since 2012.

Image of Telethons book cover

"Telethons" by Paul K. Longmore

Longmore himself lived with significant mobility impairments as a result of childhood polio and discovered at a young age that disabled children "being trotted out and used on television did real damage. He set out to understand why by researching and writing this book," Kudlick said.

Longmore spent two decades researching and writing "Telethons," a book, Kudlick said, he always described as his crowning academic achievement. After his death, Kudlick oversaw its completion. "Paul Longmore was such a towering intellect and forceful activist that several of us put aside our own scholarship to make sure his amazing insights would get out into the world," she said.

People with disabilities are often misunderstood by the nondisabled, according to Longmore. Kudlick said "Telethons" reveals how certain images of disabled people served big business and do-gooders and influenced ideas about who should provide health care.

"As Paul illustrates, the telethons raised money largely by presenting disabled children as helpless and pitiful,” Kudlick said. “This infantalization extended to the disabled adults who appeared on the programs and helped to frame all people with disabilities solely as victims of a medical condition and insignificant for American society in general."

Longmore argues other problems loomed larger: lack of universal health care, inaccessible environments, prejudice and few people with disabilities in positions to tell stories different than those told on telethons.

As highly popular entertainment, telethons taught Americans how to feel about their bodies, fitness and health and how to interact with people whose bodies did not fit ideals promoted in advertisements, movies and popular culture in general. In addition, Kudlick said telethons "created feel-good moments where nondisabled people could congratulate themselves on their generosity without raising questions about the bigger system that essentially made it necessary for people to beg on TV."

Only when disabled people later pushed back in public protests did the damage done by telethons become clear.

Kudlick acknowledges that "Telethons" will most likely provoke controversy by "taking a critical look at a phenomenon that most Americans believe does real good for people who are suffering. People aren't used to thinking about disability as a matter of social justice -- 'Telethons' gives them this new perspective."