I’m a bit late out of the gate on this one because I actually read about Zach last week, but didn’t have time to write about him until this week. For those who don’t breathlessly follow US pop culture, Zach Anner is a man with cerebral palsy who is participating in a competition sponsored by Oprah to find ‘the next TV star.’ Controversy was sparked when accusations about rigging the vote started flying and he started getting a lot of attention online as a result.
I admit that I tuned out of a lot of the controversy about the vote, mainly because as soon as I read the words ‘wheelchair bound‘ in a headline, my eyes start glazing over and I long to take the reporter, sit ou down in a chair, and ask that ou take the time to read a primer on disability terminology before writing about disability. By the time I have shaken off my irritation, I have completely forgotten whatever it was I was reading.
Zach’s concept for a show is pretty awesome. He wants to start a travel show for people with disabilities. There are a lot of websites for exchanging information about travel, but I really love the idea of having a TV show, for several reasons. One, of course, is that I would love to see a disabled television personality. Nondisabled people would undoubtedly watch the show and would have some of their myths and preconceptions about disability busted, while also learning some things along the way, like, say, that wheelchair users are not actually completely helpless and in need of constant pity. And, of course, a travel show specifically targeting the disability demographic would, I would hope, be packed with fascinating and relevant and helpful information and travel tips.
Here’s what I love about Zach: He has a great sense of humour and a splendid presence. He’s wry about disability while also making pointed comments, like saying that a site is ‘fully accessible if you don’t mind being carried up it.’ He absolutely refuses to allow himself to be boxed into the disability-as-tragedy narrative. He’s busting myths and challenging narratives about disability and what people can and can’t do. He’s body positive.
He can be a bit of a dudebro sometimes, which is not really my thing, but in a way, that’s what is so deliciously subversive about him. He’s young, white, and male, the target demographic for dudebrodom, but he’s also disabled. Wheelchair users are expected to be either passive or angry, but they certainly aren’t expected to be sexual, and Zach turns that particular narrative on its head. That’s right, folks! Wheelchair users too can aspire to dudebrodom! This is a man who talks about wanting to hang glide naked in Paris. I’ve got to respect that.
Zach is up against a lot of misconceptions and social attitudes, a lot of which manifest in comment threads and articles across the Internet. He’s referred to as ‘cerebral palsy guy’ as though he doesn’t have, you know, a name, and people seem bound and determined to reduce him to his disability, and to make a point of stressing how ‘inspiring’ and ‘special’ he is, with more conversation about Zach’s body than about his show concept: ‘How do you masturbate,’ a Reddit user asks him. ‘That is an excellent question, and I think that you could probably Wikipedia that, I’m not really the expert.’ Touche, Zach. Touche.
I’d like to see him win the Oprah contest because I think his concept is fantastically awesome and vitally needed, because he’s pretty damn funny, and because he’s actively deconstructing social attitudes about disability and what it’s like to be a wheelchair user, to have cerebral palsy, to identify as disabled.
So, Zach, I’m a fan. But I also have a request for you: Could you caption your YouTube videos?