Tearing Down Barriers Through Television

12/10/2015 04:32 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2016

Culture plays a critical role in our society. It contributes to the values and ideals that define us, and what we desire to share with our families, friends, coworkers and children.

What we see, we feel. And what we feel impacts how we act.

Sadly, for generations, television has shown people with disabilities as objects of pity. From the Jerry Lewis telethons, to stories where school teams become heroes simply by letting one kid with a disability play for a few minutes out on the court or field, our television sets have brought us stigmas that undermine the one-in-five Americans who have a disability.

Thankfully, with A&E Networks' new show, "Born This Way," there has been a major breakthrough. Finally, people with disabilities and their families are being shown honestly.

Known in the Twitterverse as #BornThisWay, the show follows seven dynamic young adults with Down syndrome and their families as they navigate jobs and relationships and look to gain greater independence. Among those featured is Steven, who works two jobs; John, who is pursuing a career in rap music; and Cristina, who works at a middle school and has a boyfriend of four years whom she plans to marry. Megan talks openly about how she doesn't want low expectations regarding people with Down syndrome to "limit me."

"We are proud to be airing this important and extraordinary series and hope it will inspire meaningful conversations about people with differences," said Elaine Frontain Bryant, head of programming for A&E Network. "'Born This Way' is a show with honesty, humor and heart that celebrates and embraces diversity."

A&E Network is to be congratulated for bringing us this groundbreaking television. They are in the business of telling stories, and, in this show, they do it very, very well. Their true talent is in imagining, finding, cultivating and bringing to life the most entertaining parts of the human experience. With this fully human-centered six-episode docu-drama, they are enabling a big part of humanity to actually breath life on our TV screens. A&E Network is connected to the History Channel, and, now they are making history instead of just reporting on it. That's because, for the first time, millions of people with disabilities and their families can see themselves reflected accurately on television.

"Born This Way" is a passion project of Jonathan Murray and Bunim-Murray Productions. Since 1987, Murray has created groundbreaking, unprecedented and unforgettable reality entertainment. An Emmy Award-winner, he is widely credited with creating the reality television genre with the hit series "The Real World." In its early seasons, "The Real World" introduced America to Pedro Pablo Zamora, a cast member who brought international attention to HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues and prejudices through his appearance in the series. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton credited Zamora's appearances on the show with personalizing and humanizing those living with HIV.

In recent years, Murray has expanded his attention to become a behind-the-scenes civil rights activist and champion for the one-in-five Americans who are living with a disability. His Emmy-winning documentary "Autism: The Musical" showed "Coach Elaine" and a fabulous group of young people on the Autism spectrum as they created a live show. His show "Project Runway" cast a contestant who is deaf who did extremely well in showcasing real talent and skills. In creating "Born This Way," which also has an accompanying teaching guide for teachers, schools and readers, something great is happening. For the first time, there is a show that truly shows the full view of real people with disabilities.

Why is this so important? Today, there are 56 million Americans with disabilities. For the more than 20 million who are working age, only 30 percent are working. For people with Down syndrome and other developmental disorders, the statistics are even worse. Each year, 300,000 young Americans with disabilities age into what should be the workforce. But most go to their parents' couches where they are stuck -- facing poverty, powerlessness and worse. The transition years -- which are the focus of this new show -- are vital.

Recently GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has used the word "stupid" more than 30 times to express incompetence or to say that someone is a loser. Unlike when he insulted Hispanics or Muslims, when there was a massive pushback, few called him out for repeatedly insulting people with intellectual disabilities. The fact is that people with intellectual disabilities, including people with Down syndrome, can be absolute winners.

High expectations for people with disabilities are so important. #BornThisWay has those very high expectations. It goes a long way to start a process that can end the bigotry of low expectations of people with disabilities so that they can be welcomed, valued, respected, employed and treated equally in our society.