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Treated like equals on reality TV

Contestants with disabilities triumph across spectrum of shows

Since the birth of MTV’s trailblazing series “The Real World,” reality TV has adhered to one simple formula: Good casting + cameras = entertainment.

But how “real” is the average reality participant? For years, concerned groups have called for more visibility for people with disabilities in entertainment, specifically reality TV. It appears that those suggestions are finally being acknowledged.

This past year featured these reality show contestants, among others:

• James Durbin, who has both Asperger’s syndrome and Tourette’s syndrome (“American Idol”)

• Luke Adams, who is deaf (“The Amazing Race”)

• Zev Glassenberg, who has Asperger’s syndrome (“The Amazing Race”)

• Marlee Matlin, who is deaf (“The Celebrity Apprentice”)

• Kelly Bruno, an amputee who competed with an artificial leg (“Survivor”)

• Ed Cotton, who admitted before the finale that he grew up with an unnamed learning disability (“Top Chef”)

These contestants proved to be formidable competitors.

Matlin, who also competed on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2008, made it to the finals. “Amazing Race” finalist Adams was tripped up not by his deafness, but by a tea-tasting challenge in India.

Autism advocates were particularly impressed by the successes of Durbin and Glassenberg, who each made it to the top four on their respective series. As the number of Americans diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders continues to skyrocket — the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 110 children in the United States suffer from the disability — the reality contestant pool is perhaps beginning to reflect that phenomenon.

Glassenberg, who also competed on Season 15 of “Amazing Race,” said the fan outpouring has been overwhelming. The 28-year-old college dropout-turned-reality favorite says he’s happy with his new role as Asperger’s poster boy, particularly when it helps families coming to terms with the condition.

“There was one family in Chicago that (reached out to me),” explains Glassenberg, who is now pursing an acting career and looking for an agent. “They didn’t know how to tell their 11-year-old son that he had Asperger’s. He watched me during the first season (I competed), and he really connected with me. His mom told him that he had Asperger’s like me. He said,’Oh, it’s like the final missing piece of the puzzle.’?”

Meanwhile, “Survivor” host Jeff Probst says Bruno’s artificial leg didn’t slow her down for a second.

“Her problem was the social game — some tribe members saw her as a charity case and therefore were afraid to let her get too deep into the show,” he recalls.”One day, NaOnka (Mixon) — who would ironically quit before the show ended — pushed her off balance and knocked her down trying to wrestle away a clue for an idol. While many people were upset with NaOnka, another way to look at it is as a testament to Kelly’s strength. NaOnka didn’t see Kelly any differently than she did anybody else.”

That’s what many disability advocates have been hoping for all along.

Stars embrace reality competition shows | Competition series wrestle with change | Treated like equals on reality TV | Social media draws live auds to reality shows | Why we watch | Playing the reality-competition field

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