Bring on the Real Survivors

Reality-TV shows should recruit disabled competitors, folks whose everyday lives are a demonstration of how to beat the odds

By Suzanne Robitaille

The popular CBS reality-TV program, Survivor, has become a pop-culture phenomenon. The runaway hit, where 16 castaways compete for the chance to win a pot of $1 million, hooks more than 11 million TV viewers each week with its exotic locales and grueling challenges. But the series, while a fantasy for most Americans, might as well be Mission: Impossible for persons with severe disabilities, many of whom can only dream of hiking in the Australian outback or standing for hours on end atop wooden floats in the South China Sea.

It would take some effort for CBS to adjust the show to let persons with disabilities participate. But there are wheelchairs that can handle rough terrain, all-terrain vehicles for people with disabilities -- even bungee-jumping cords that accommodate wheelchairs. With some creative thinking, Survivor could be retooled -- and it would be well worth the effort. Not only would it make the show more interesting, it just might attract an even larger audience, especially among people with disabilities.

When Survivor was first broadcast, castaways struggled to win mind games like memory matches and contend with eating creepy-looking insects. These are the kinds of tasks that mobility-, hearing-, or vision-impaired persons could perform quite deftly. But it's becoming clearer as Survivor enters its third season that the emphasis has shifted, so winning competitions and forming friendships (called "alliances" on the show) is accomplished by means of individual player's physical prowess, which strengthens the team as a whole. The show now depends more on physical endurance rather than mental skill, such as the ability to strategize.


  This Darwinian trend, which allows teams to shed their less powerful members more easily, sends a message that physical prowess is the basic tool for guaranteed success in life. Survivor castaways might quickly single out folks who have trouble walking, hearing, or seeing.

The latest series, Survivor in Africa, takes place in a wild national park in Kenya, where the temperature can hit 100F in the afternoon. The two "tribes," Boran and Samburu, face the most strenuous challenges in the series' three-year history. According to the show's rules, a challenge is either a "reward challenge" where castaways compete for luxuries, such as a phone call home or a hot shower, or an "immunity challenge," where victory stops the winner being voted off by the Tribal Council.

The African expedition has been a test in fortitude. Castaways have had to pull heavy carts filled with fire torches, roll boulders through an obstacle course, and walk a mile across lava-rock terrain to fetch drinking water. Could persons in a wheelchair accomplish these feats? No way, you might think.


  Well, think again. There are all-terrain wheelchairs that can maneuver through sand, water, and snow, such as the Seeker from Jason Marine Enterprises or tractor-frame vehicles from Freedom One, which help disabled farmers push and pull loads and get through mud puddles.

So why not feature a person with a disability on each team? Or better yet, showcase a whole group of castaways with disabilities -- survivors in the same boat, so to speak. Varying levels of disadvantages could be compensated for, and challenges might range from memory tests to artistic contests. The first and second Survivor series demonstrated that challenges don't have to involve physical endurance to be interesting. In the Australian Outback, castaways had to match sets of items and locate two baskets. In another episode, each survivor was given a money pouch filled with $500 Australian dollars and had to outbid their fellow tribe members for cheeseburgers and potato chips.

In one Outback episode, ironically titled The Blind Leading the Blind, one member acted as the eyes for the tribe, guiding their blindfolded teammates through challenges that involved stacking wooden beams and filling buckets of water. A blind contestant could have won that contest hands down, although he or she may have changed the title to "The Blind Leading the Slowpokes."


  In the original Survivor, which was set on a remote island in the South China Sea, castaways visited a volcano to coat their bodies with mud. In another, the tribe charged through the jungle armed with video recorders in search of hand-carved idols. In one famous scene, players had to swallow live beetle larvae a half-inch thick. Even in the Africa series, the most talked-about challenge was nothing more than a test of stomach stamina. Contestants had to drink a shot of blood from a cow, an ancient African ritual.

Aside from the challenges, the daily grind in the West African grasslands isn't Easy Street. Castaways sleep on the ground and do without showers, even toilet paper. Each is allowed to take a single luxury item from home, such as a moisturizing lotion. In real life, most persons with disabilities can't just pick up and leave without their walking canes or hearing aids.

Still, CBS could tweak the rules to accommodate persons with extra needs, and Survivor could be broadened to illuminate other talents. There are many capable wheelchair-bound athletes, such as those who compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Organization or the Special Olympics. There are adventure tours all over the world for persons in wheelchairs. Rolling South Africa, a recreational outfitter based in the country of the same name, offers a 21-day, wheelchair-accessible tour. The company totes along accessible mobile toilets and showers on the day trips. Travelers can kayak, water ski in a specially adapted chair, descend from the sky in a parachute, or bungee jump 600 feet while strapped in wheelchairs.


  Survivor in Africa isn't pure fantasy. There are many real-life dangers that contestants need to consider, like malaria and dehydration. Being alert and keeping oneself healthy is the name of the game. So I can hear some of you thinking: If a wild animal pounced, would a hearing-impaired player get left behind as a snack? Come on! People with disabilities have learned how to adapt in the world just like others.

If you think it's hard to survive on a wild continent using your wits and physical aptitude, imagine the obstacles overcome by those with disabilities every day of the week. These are the real survivors, no matter what happens at the Tribal Council at the end of the night.

Robitaille covers assistive-technology issues for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht