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Disability Action Center NW

On TV, PWDs Are “Ratings Gold”

May 10, 2011, 9:39 am

Two contestants on Dancing on Wheels on BBC

[By Suzanne Robitaille]

Every now and then the media writes an article about reality shows thatblend in people with disabilities. Favorites are American Idol contestant James Durbin, who has both Tourette and Asperger syndromes, and Luke Adams, the first Deaf contestant on The Amazing Race. While it’s great to see differently abled folk thrown into the crazy, shenanigan-lovin’ circus that is reality TV, it’s about time that producers began realizing the potential for PWDs to draw in top ratings all on their own.

There’s no finer person to lead this trend than Oprah Winfrey, who just crowned Zach Anner, a comedian who has cerebral palsy, as the winner of his own TV show on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Anner plans to travel the world in his wheelchair, cracking jokes about inaccessible palaces and how yoga looks a lot like how he puts on pants in the morning.

In a cable series on NBC’s Universal Sports, Take a Seat followed filmmaker Dominic Gill, who shared a tandem bike with 10 physically challenged partners during a cross-country trip. The network is innately familiar with physical disabilities as it sponsors and airs the Paralympics Games. Not to be outdone is TLC’s popular series Little People, Big World, which follows an Oregon family of little (and average-height) people as they juggle the social and physical challenges of living with dwarfism.

Across the pond, the Brits are fashionably early to this game. There’s BBC America’s Britain’s Missing Top Model, where all the models have a disability, yet, in the beauty industry, “an ounce of fat is a greater hurdle than a missing limb,” as The New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley keenly notes. Dancing On Wheels is another BBC program where six couples compete for the Wheelchair Dance Sport European Championships – and some of them do a mean foxtrot.

And though it ended in 2009, BBC’s The Cast Offs was like Survivor for PWDs, where viewers rooted for a paraplegic, a dwarf, a blind person, a deaf person, a man with deformed arms and a woman with a facial condition to endure on a British island for 90 days. One reviewer called it “Lord of the Flies on crack.”

PWDs are now even creating their own web series on YouTube. One to check out is My Deaf Family, which is executive produced by Deaf actress Marlee Matlin (who also is a contestant in this season’s Celebrity Apprentice). A BBC Ouch! web series, My Big Fat Inclusive Wedding, asks disabled brides to recount the unique touches that made their days so special. Ouch! also hosts a fascinating web podcast between three disabled comedians in Australia, San Francisco and in London.

Since no one person with one type of disability can truly represent someone with a different disability, you can bet there’s gads and gads of PWD storytelling to explore on the tube. New Mobility Magazine said it best: PWDs “show the reality of life. The fullness of life. Add in the curiosity factor, and we’re ratings gold.”