Disability is not new to reality television. Dancing with the Stars has been incorporating visibly disabled and Deaf dancers for most of their history. Not only do they compete—they win. J. R. Martinez and Nyles DiMarco have both snagged mirror ball trophies. Paralympian Amy Purdy took home the silver for her stunning performances on DWTS. The Amazing Race has also had its share of disabled racers, including my favorite team in history, Bethany Hamilton (a shark attack survivor who slayed the race with one arm) and Adam Dirk. These empowering images on national television help to destroy negative stereotypes associated with disability.
But a reality show about finding love is a whole different game.
On Valentine's Day 2017, history was made in Bachelor Nation. The Bachelor franchise, now in its 15th year and 33rd season, announced its first ever black star. Rachel Lindsay, a lawyer from Dallas and a contestant on eternal Bachelor Nick Viall's season, was chosen to dish out the roses as the next Bachelorette. This is big news because The Bachelor franchise is infamous for its lack of diversity, not only when it comes to race but also weight, age, ability, and sexual orientation.
I have been a devout member of the Bachelor Nation since the first rose ceremony in 2002 but the lack of diversity has always irked me. Now that they finally popped the diversity cherry, it's time to try something a little more risqué. What if the next Bachelor or Bachelorette was visibly disabled?
To be fair, there have been disabled contestants vying for a rose in the past. Several bachelors and bachelorettes identified as having less visible disabilities such as anxiety, depression, Crohn's, and PTSD. There was also a visibly disabled contestant on season 17 of The Bachelor. Sarah Herron, an advertising executive and founder of SheLift, was born without the lower part of her arm because of a condition called Amniotic Band Syndrome. Sarah was the perfect fit for The Bachelor and a true competitor. She did not get any pity dates and was very much treated as an equal by her fellow desperate singles.
Sadly, she was sent home long before the final rose. Sarah returned to the franchise the summer of 2016 as a contestant on The Bachelor in Paradise. BiP is a spin-off of The Bachelor where losers get a second chance at love and fame. On the very first episode, a fellow participant called Herron a "one-armed bitch." His violent ableism resulted in him being booted out of paradise. Sarah's fellow contestants, as well as the powers that be, defended her and removed the bully; something rarely witnessed on reality TV.
America needs a disabled Bachelor or Bachelorette.
Herron is the perfect candidate for the next Bachelorette. The franchise loves to pull their stars from their former rejects. Also, society often views the disabled as undateable, hence all the viral videos of non-disabled students asking disabled teens to the prom. The implication is that no one would want to go to a dance with a disabled date unless it meant internet stardom or fulfilling the service requirement on a college application. It would be revolutionary to show 25 fame-hungry bachelors or bachelorettes vying for the affection of a disabled love interest on primetime.
The myth that disabled people don't date or are undesirable would be hilarious if it wasn't so dehumanizing and dangerous. Danielle Sheypuk, a psychologist and New York contestant in the 2012 Ms. Wheelchair pageant, is widely regarded as an expert on sex and disability. She's also a Bachelor fan. "The world absolutely needs to see a disabled lead on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. I'll admit that I have wanted to be this lead for a very long time and even applied. Having a disabled lead would radically help to debunk all of the negative, untrue stereotypes and myths about disability and sexuality," she says.
Sheypuk also believes that having a disabled bachelor would combat the chronic infantilization of disability. "Another antiquated view of disability comes from a very long history of viewing people with disabilities as angelic-like beings who can do no wrong or as helpless creatures who induce pity and sympathy," she says. "When a person believes either of these two views which contain child-like descriptors, it is common for them to infantilize anyone with a disability."
It's time for The Bachelor franchise to give in to reality peer pressure and become more inclusive. "What concerns me as a disabled woman of color is the lack of diversity on both shows," says disability rights advocate and founder of Ramp Your Voice, Vilissa Thompson. "The world needs to know that disabled people can be heartbreakers like anyone else. We fall in love and out of love, and are vain and as emotionally unready for love as non disabled people."
While many in the disabled community would love to see someone that reflects their image leading the group dates, non-disabled Bachelor fans I spoke to had mixed feelings about the prospect. On Bachelor Mondays, my comrades—Seema Iyer, Hitha Herzog, Eliza Orlins—and I live tweet the show under the hashtag, #BachelorBrownies. We are superfans who mercilessly mock each episode and happen to be predominantly brown (but all shades are welcome). I asked Seema if she would like to see a disabled lead. "I would like to see one as long as it is still fun to watch and not depressing. I watch The Bachelor franchise to laugh not cry," she says.
I promptly volunteered my palsy Kardashian-esque self as tribute. Seema agreed it would be must see TV if I was going to be the Bachelorette shakily straight-pinning roses on the brave bachelors.
Mary Pettinato—a non-disabled friend of mine for over a decade—and her husband Joe, who watch the series together in Michigan, worry about the trolls. "I'd love to see it, and would hope that it would destigmatize disabled people but I doubt the average asshole American would appreciate it in a positive way. I fear it would be seen like a sideshow," Mary tells me.
Jim seconded her sentiment. "I don't think it's a good idea because shallow people would just treat them like a joke. I personally would watch it, and enjoy it."
Congratulations to Rachel Lindsay for making history. May she find love in the most hopeless place: Reality TV. And here's to the Bachelor franchise breaking its next barrier. A disabled suitor getting engaged on the show would be a ratings winner, Emmys gold, and a game changer for how disabled people are viewed romantically and comedically in the future. Chris Harrison, will you accept this rose?