It’s that time of the year again, when Chileans start writing checks and making bank deposits in an act of solidarity for a good cause: children with disabilities.
On November 28-29, local TV stations in Chile will broadcast 27 hours of uninterrupted Teletón love; a campaign that seeks to raise money for children with motor disabilities. All of the earnings collected go to the 13 Institutes of Child Rehabilitation throughout the country.
The solidarity crusade began in 1978 and was chaired by Mario Kreutzberger, aka ‘Don Francisco,’ one of the most influential hosts in the history of Chilean TV thanks to the famous variety show “Sábado Gigante.” The Teletón saw its debut at a time where the rights of disabled persons weren’t even on the political radar — since then, it has raised tremendous awareness around this issue. Based on its success, the model was later replicated in other Latin American countries, including Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.
This year, the Chilean Teletón hopes to raise the equivalent of US$41.8 million.
Even though the event is regarded with esteem by millions of Chileans and the Teletón Foundation has done a lot for disabled children in the country, the media spectacle has lately come under fire due to its portrayal of disabled children, its “vulgar” midnight stripper/vedette show and the involvement of private enterprise.
“Subjects of charity”
Last month, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities published a report that harshly criticized the Mexican version of Teletón. The report argued that the event promotes stereotypes of people with disabilities and showcases them as “subjects of charity,” rather than individuals with rights, and raised concerns that a significant part of state resources for rehabilitation of disabled persons are in the hands of a private companies such as Teletón.
Some in Chile say the original campaign is deserving of these same criticisms. In an October op-ed, Alejandro Hernández, president of the Chilean National Foundation for the Disabled (FND), said the Teletón is “the business deal of the century for some and the biggest violation of human rights of millions of Chilean citizens,” and added “Applauding the Teletón is celebrating the segregation and discrimination experienced by people with disabilities in our country.”
Just like the Mexican version, Chile’s Teletón is seen by many as a media spectacle that undermines the rights of the disabled children that participate in it. The infamous “symbol child” — the visible disabled face of each year’s campaign — is an example of how the event portrays them as “objects of charity.” As Carolina Pérez, columnist for Radio Universidad de Chile and disabled person said on a radio show, “How will private enterprise give us a job if they see us as dramatic and charitable beings?”
The event raises questions about the state’s role in the rehabilitation of disabled children as it continues to outsource its responsibility to the private sector. The Teletón has also been criticized for “commodification,” due to the presence of sponsoring companies that use the event to increase sales and reduce their tax burden by participating in a nonprofit charity event. However, the sponsorship of major companies and brands does not necessarily translate into a concrete increase in the percentage of disabled persons in the working force, nor does it contribute to the strengthening of public policies that protect their rights.
The late night section of Teletón, the Vedettón, is essentially a contest of erotic dancing between famous Chilean and international vedettes. Though this portion of the show draws plenty of attention and high ratings, is also criticized for its use of erotic content and sexuality to raise awareness for children with disabilities.
“The fact that women and men strip in an erotic show on TV, in the name of children, is an abuse of children’s disabilities,” said lawyer and expert on disability and human rights Paulina Bravo in an interview with The Santiago Times.
Even Don Francisco has acknowledged that the last edition of the Vedettón was too raunchy and distorted the original meaning of the event, and said he hopes that this year’s segment will be “more dignified.”
Teletón’s legendary host Don Francisco isn’t free of criticism, either. When asked if he received a percentage of the proceeds of the Teletón, Don Francisco said:
“In the years I’ve worked for Teletón I have never asked it for one cent, nor has the Teletón given me one cent. I’ve participated because I’ve wanted to and I’m proud to have participated.”
But singer Mike Patton, frontman of the band Faith No More, publicly implied that Don Francisco has relations with the mafia in the 2010 version of Teletón, when he kissed his hand and called him “Don Corleone.”
Whether these accusations are true or not, it seems realistic to assume that, given the current circumstances of the country, Teletón is an event that will not vanish anytime soon soon.