Have you heard of Zach Anner? If not, you're in for a treat. But first, a soapbox moment. Or two.
The other day, I got one of those inspirational e-mails that circle the Internet on a regular basis. This one was a story about a blind boy sitting by a building with a hat by his feet, holding up a sign that said "I am blind, please help." Naturally, there were merely a few coins in the (no doubt tattered) hat. A good Samaritan walks by and takes it upon himself to change the sign (without asking) which miraculously has the effect of greatly increasing the donations. He goes by later to check on how things are, the boy naturally recognizes his footsteps and asks what he wrote on the sign. To which our esteemed Samaritan replies "I only wrote the truth. I said what you said but in a different way." He had written "today is a beautiful day and I cannot see it." This "beautiful" and "inspirational" story is called The Heart of Gratitude, clearly with a double meaning - the boy should be grateful to the man for stepping in and taking over and we should be grateful because we can see when the boy can't.
And this is exactly the kind of crap that sends me into an apoplexy at most charitable campaigns for miscellaneous diseases/conditions. It is the using of the stories and lives of people with disabilities to tug relentlessly on heartstrings, to elicit the "there but for the grace of God go I." gratitude that we are hale and healthy, while at the same time leaning heavily on the guilt button so will shell out money to make the transitory pain and discomfort of having to see into these poor cripples’ lives go away. And of course the people who use us to raise money for us are able-bodied, because they know what's best for us, don't they, because it's impossible to imagine that people with disabilities might actually want to have a go at it themselves, in their own way, with some respect and dignity and entirely without the pity, thank you very much.
Want another one? This one's from some department in the Oprah syndicate. It's about Stephanie Nielson and her journey back to life after an almost fatal plane crash. And it's one hell of a story - Stephanie writes a blog, a very powerful one about her daily life, the love that in that life, what is like to be her and how she does it with grace. However! The video on the Oprah website is really less about Stephanie than about the alleged reporter's reaction to Stephanie story and because this supposed reporter stands in for us, the lucky healthy, able-bodied ones, it is about us as well. The last image and the last words are about what Stephanie's journey has helped the reporter realize and we're back to the sanctimonious able-bodied receiving grace and salvation through someone else's pain.
Which brings me to Zach. And it's a sort of natural segue, because Oprah is involved in this one, too (the woman is everywhere). Having become somewhat enamored of giving things away, Oprah is now giving away a TV show. Which is kind of cool. People who are interested do and the audition tape, the videos are posted and the public votes. The the person who receives the most votes gets the show. And one of the leading contenders is Zach Anner. Zach uses a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy (which he calls "the sexiest of the palsies") and proposes a travel show. Which is so much less than the experience of watching his audition tape - go watch it. I'll wait.
The man is funny. Seriously funny. And the Internet campaign to crown him the winner has gone nuts - it's led to a second video of Zach seeing the results when he had 2 million votes, a training video for his "crawlathon” to make good on his promise to participate in a marathon if he got 1 million votes, John Mayer is offering to do his theme song and there's even a conspiracy theory (thanks to David for finding all the links which I've shamelesly listed off his post on Zach).
And this story is the complete opposite of the other two. Because this is about a man not only embracing his disability and having a lot of fun with it, it is also a story about a man who refuses to be pitied. Zach is out there having a great time with a lot of self-respect and dignity (yes, dignity, because when it gets undignified - and it hilariously undignified - he's the one that decided to do things that way). He’s fully and totally in charge of himself, his message and his image and it’s what makes him and his proposed show unique and incredibly watchable. Not because it'll tug on the heartstrings, not because it'll push on the guilt button, but because you can't wait to see what he comes up with next. If he doesn't win this contest, he'll get a show somewhere else, because he's that good. Not because the able-bodied world is throwing the cripple a bone, but because it's good business.
Zach Anner is master of his domain and a true inspiration, not just for other people with disabilities, but for the able-bodied and clueless. He forces you to see him and not a stereotype and although he's just proposing a TV show, he's doing much, much more than that. He's changing the world.
Go vote for him. More than once.