This month, A&E’s Born This Way, a show staring people with disabilities, was nominated for three Emmy awards. The show follows seven young adults with Down syndrome as they live, work and love in Los Angeles. Previously it was chosen as one of six honorees for the 2016 Television Academy Honors, an award that recognizes television programming that inspires, informs and motivates.
Earlier, when reality television shows reduced stigmas surrounding disability, it was largely through individuals such as the super talented Nyle DiMarco, who won both America’s Top Model and Dancing with the Stars. A&E’s Born this Way, on the other hand, is fully dedicated to dissolving the stigmas surrounding disability, as cast member Megan Bomgaars’ message “Don’t Limit Me” epitomizes.
“Hey, I have a disability, and I’m OK with it,’” cast member Steven Clark said.
Born This Way was created by Jonathan Murray, the innovator behind the first-ever reality-show, The Real World, and many other hit shows including Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Born this Way shows audiences that people with Down syndrome have the same hopes, dreams and even dramas as everyone else.
“In my 30-plus years as a producer, when I was asked what show I was proudest of, it was always The Real World. Now, there is a contender to that title. It’s Born This Way, a show that breaks ground in so many new ways,” Murray said following the renewal for a second season.
Born This Way will be returning for its second season featuring 10 brand-new episodes on Tuesday, July 26, 2016 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Don’t forget to watch live and tweet using #BornThisWay!
Want to catch up on season one? You have two opportunities to watch a full-season marathon:
- Tuesday, July 26: 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. ET on A&E
- Or catch up online!
Nyle DiMarco Busting Stigma on America’s Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars
As mentioned above, a key show breaking negative stereotypes for people with disabilities is Dancing with the Stars. Nyle DiMarco and Marlee Matlin, who are both deaf, were winning contestants. Previously on Dancing with the Stars, Amy Purdy, a Paralympian medalist and double amputee whose average score, 27.9 out of 30, puts her in the top ten celebrity contestants in the show’s history, also dazzled audiences. Her appearance was preceded by the 2014 Winter Paralympics, in which she was the first U.S. woman to receive a medal in adaptive snowboarding.
Heather Kuzmich, who has Asperger’s syndrome, also was a contestant on America’s Next Top Model, but DiMarco was the first to win and he used his platform to advocate for the deaf community.
“I want to point out that this is not only about breaking the barriers for the entire deaf community all over the world, but also about educating the world on what being deaf is truly all about – that it has a culture and a beautiful language, American Sign Language (ASL),” he said. His high profile in the modeling community encouraged other people with hearing impairments to consider modeling.
“During the show, there were a lot of beautiful deaf people reaching out to me asking how they can get into modeling. I truly believe that not only did I help them conquer their fears, but I also made them realize that they should give it a shot!”
After the competition, DiMarco served as a spokesperson for LEAD-K (Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids) and promoted The ASL App in an effort to make ASL mainstream.
Before the season of Dancing with the Stars began, he declared, “I’m ready to take the world by storm and have them look at me and say, ‘deaf people can dance.’”
DiMarco quickly became a fan favorite and, just like his time on America’s Top Model, he used his platform to advocate for the deaf community. He dedicated his final dance, performed to Disturbed’s cover of “The Sound of Silence” to the community.
“My interpretation for the song is that for hundreds of years, my Deaf community has suffered oppression, marginalization and language deprivation… but now we’re starting to find hope in this new world,” he stated in a Facebook post. “It is time for our soundless message to be heard, hence the Sound of Silence… it is our time.”
Justin LeBlanc on Project Runway: “A deaf person can achieve anything that they choose”
Project Runway is another reality show that is concerned with full inclusion of people with disabilities. Justin LeBlanc, who is deaf, was a finalist on season twelve of in 2013.
“It’s been a truly life-enhancing experience,” said LeBlanc. “I’ve pushed myself to the limit physically, mentally and emotionally. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my peers and I’ve established friendships that I hope will be life-long. And believe it or not, it was a lot of fun!”
When asked if being deaf impeded his success, LeBlanc replied, “Never. Never. If anything, being deaf gave me more incentive to achieve my goals. A deaf person can achieve anything that they choose.”
Like DiMarco, LeBlanc used his platform to advocate for the deaf community.
“I always saw this as an opportunity to educate people about that aspect of myself. There were discouraging times, many in fact. But I am a VERY positive person. I am proud to be a deaf person. It is who I am, and I embrace it.”
He hopes his experience on Project Runway will inspire other deaf people.
“I remember my parents telling me that when I was little, a couple who had just learned the their child was deaf came up to us to say that they were terrified at the prospect of having a deaf child. But after seeing me, they were put at ease because I was so happy, outgoing, communicative, and well adjusted. I hope that, as an adult, I can get the same message across.”
Discounted Blind Chef Christine Hà Wins Master Chef
In 2012 Christine Hà, a woman who is blind, won season three of FOX’s Master Chef. Although she had never attended culinary school, she ran The Blind Cook, a popular food blog.
“I think there are a lot of people who completely discounted me,” Hà stated in an interview. “They think I’m there as a TV gimmick for ratings. People will say, ‘What is she doing? Is she going to cut her finger off?’ But I cook at home for years without vision, so if I can do it at home I don’t see why I can’t prove to everyone else I can do it on national TV.”
Hà did more than prove herself – she won that season’s competition.
“The lady has an extraordinary palate, a palate of incredible finesse,” said Chef Gordon Ramsay, one of the judges on MasterChef. “She picks up hot ingredients, touches them, and she thinks about this image on the plate. She has the most disciplined execution on a plate that we’ve ever seen. But the palate is where it’s just extraordinary. And honestly, I know chefs with Michelin stars that don’t have palates like hers.”
After the competition, Hà continued writing on her blog and published a cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen. She also received the Hellen Keller Personal Achievement Award from the America Foundation of the Blind. The award is given to people and organizations that have “demonstrated outstanding achievement in improving quality of life for people with vision loss.”
She has continued to advocate for those who are visually impaired, in particular through affected by neromyelitis optica, on her blog the NMO Diaries:
“I just want people to realize that they have it in themselves if they really want to. If they have that passion, that fire, that drive, that desire… you can overcome any obstacle and any challenges to really achieve what you want and prove yourself to the world. Everyone is very capable. Much more capable than they think they are.”
The portrayal of people with disabilities in these reality shows is in direct dichotomy with scripted television, where less than one percent of all characters on television had a disability. Furthermore, according to the recent Ruderman White Paper on Disability in Television, more than 95 percent of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors on television. This is even worse considering that discussions about diversity in film and television, including the comprehensive 2016 Annenberg report on diversity in Hollywood, have excluded disability.
Reality television often is noted for breaking down various barriers, and when it comes to addressing disability, there is no exception here.
Born This Way will be returning for its second season on July 26, 2016. Don’t forget to watch live and tweet using #BornThisWay!
RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream, is on the front lines in the battle to reduce stigmas, failed government policies and other obstacles that deny people with disabilities the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.
One area of concern is entertainment; films and television can and must do much more to reshape attitudes so that people with disabilities can more fully participate in and contribute to society. We know that by putting people with disabilities on TV – in scripted television, reality TV, the news and in jobs behind scenes — it can help empower people with disabilities to achieve as much of the American Dream as their abilities and efforts permit.
As such BMX bike legend and host of MTV’s The Challenge, T.J. Lavin, starred in a public service adfor RespectAbility. In October of 2010, extreme sport champion Lavin suffered serious bleeding on the brain, a broken wrist and an orbital fracture after a bike crash left him in a coma for nine days. Coming out of surgery, Lavin’s body and mind underwent major damage. After years of rehabilitation, Lavin is happily married and fully integrated back into society, back as a star MTV host.
“People with disabilities deserve an equal chance at employment. While most people don’t do BMX, everyone is just an accident, disease or age related issue away from a disability. It is time we respect people for their abilities rather than focusing on their disabilities,” said Lavin.
Entertainment contributes to the values and ideals that define us; and what we desire to share with our children. What we see, we feel. And what we feel impacts how we act.
RespectAbility encourages arts and entertainment leaders – just as we encourage businesses in every sector – to recognize the disability but respect the ability. We ask them to focus on what people with disabilities can do, rather than on what they cannot. We want the power of arts and entertainment to help move the needle of perception regarding people with disabilities so that people of ALL abilities can achieve the American Dream.