Oprah Winfrey, who is starting her own network called OWN and is looking for contestants to host a new reality TV show, is at the center of a voters’ dilemma. Rumors are adrift that Winfrey’s show producers may be rigging viewers’ votes against lead contestant Zach Anner, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Anner auditioned for a spot with a video showing his comedic value and finesse as a traveler with a disability, calling himself a “wheelchair-bound lady magnet.”
The rumors surfaced Tuesday when another contestant, a woman by the name of Dr. Phyllis, mysteriously gained more than 300,000 votes, surpassing the previously first placed Anner in 20 minutes. Both contestants now have more than four million votes apiece.
All votes aside, Oprah needs Zach Anner and so does the world. She should find a way to bring him on board regardless of the results. Anner is cute, funny and gives a fresh take on life. Anner has the potential to crack open the injustices and inconsistencies for the disability community on a stage built by the word’s most famous talk show host.
Viewers will be blown away by how difficult it is to travel with a physical disability within the U.S., let alone places like Europe and Africa. Wheelchairs that get knocked around in cargo. Travelers whose chairs cannot fit through the doors of hotel rooms, or give enough room for a chair to turn around fully. Showers with too high of a “lip” so that a chair can’t roll in. Transfers (from chair to bed) that break in mid-air.
The list goes on. Tourist attractions with no accessible bathrooms. Places steeped in history, such as Paris and the French capital, that have architecture making it difficult to maneuver (and local attitudes don’t help.) “The biggest problem that exists worldwide is the lack of accessible ground transportation,” says Candy Harrington, author of Barrier Free Travel and 101 Accessible Vacations. Wheelchair users who cannot find an accessible cab often must resort to a van or livery service, at a much higher cost.
In seeking her new reality show contestant, Oprah opened her auditions to the public. In my opinion she should have hand-picked her own contestant if she didn’t want to see how the sausage is made. The thing is, I believe she’s all about the sausage, but that her show’s producers (and public relations team) might not be. Keep in mind that they’ll be the ones following Anner around the globe in his wheelchair if he wins. (Note to OWN crew: Put Anner up in Microtel.)
Situations like open contests are difficult for people with disabilities to compete in. The very nature of a contest weeds out weak performers, especially If there’s a preconceived notion that someone is physically or mentally unable to carry the torch. It happens in showbiz, in sports and in the job market.
Anner won four million votes. He deserves an opportunity to make us laugh, cry and see the world in a different light while peeling back the intimate layers of traveling with a disability. (Vote for him here.) It won’t be pretty, but he’ll give viewers one of the most rewarding experiences on TV. And that’s something Oprah can truly OWN.