This week, I got a chance to talk with Susan Anner, mom to Zach—one of the winners of Oprah's Your Own Show competition. I've been crushing on the guy since I saw his Oprah audition tape, where he joked about having "The sexiest of the palsies" (like Max, Zach has spastic four-quad cerebral palsy). I figured anyone as cool as he is has a mom who did something, if not many things, right. Sure enough, Susan's great; she's a university lecturer on the topics of theatre and dance, a teaching artist and a writer, too. That's her above with Zach's bro, Brad. Here's how our phone conversation went:
They're calling Zach the new Oprah. How do you feel about that?
"I don't really think he's the new Oprah, he's the new Zach."
Where is Zach now?
"He's in Austin. 'Keep Austin weird' is the phrase they use there, they're open to people with differences. He lives with Brad, who's a year and a half older."
When did you first learn Zach had cerebral palsy?
"He was born two months premature and didn't meet his milestones. He was very verbal but phyiscally, he was nowhere. Because he was a preemie, people kept saying he'd catch up. I wanted to believe them, I so did. It's called denial. When he was diagnosed at 14 months, it was devastating. I felt like it was a life sentence. It just took time to get over that. A lot of it came from him and his sunny attitude. It was really hard to be sad for him when he was so happy."
Zach at age 6
What was Zach like growing up?
"He was always a talker. He was always hilarious, always really funny. Once, I walked in on him and his brother in their room, they had bunk beds and they were lying there in their underwear with a lamp on them, pretending they were at the beach. Oh, and you know how little kids make cards for Mother's Day? When he was 6 or 7 he made me a card that said, 'I think I'm starting to like you.' His teachers were horrified. I thought it was hysterical."
In an email you sent, you said Zach was the first kid in his school district to be in a wheelchair and that it was a fight at the beginning. What can other parents learn from your advocacy?
"Trust your gut—and know that you know your child better than anyone else. Even if teachers have been working with other kids longer than you've had your child, you still know beetter. They're going to tell you what's best for your child? I don't think so."
How did you encourage kids to see Zach for who he is?
"I encouraged friendships. Like in first grade, his entire class came over for his birthday party. Kids had to notice there was a difference, but they didn't care. When he got older it did get different because of activities like driving and going places where it wasn't convenient to take a person in a wheelchair, but he still had good friends who hung out with him."
What's your best piece of advice for parents of kids with special needs?
"As parents of kids with disabilities, we're supposed to focus so much on the needs of their disabilities—as if it should only be about getting them as physically capable as they can be and dropping everything else. You have to have a normal relationship with your child and have a happy balance. Let kids be kids. Don't drive yourself crazy. Also, get away from the pressure of what other people think."
So, where do you think Zach is most eager to travel first for Rollin' Around The World?
"I think he'll stay stateside—San Francisco, maybe. He's also interested in New Orleans, he was selling shirts online to raise money for victims of Katrina, or hitting some national parks."
What most surprised you about meeting Oprah?
"That I met Oprah."
Oprah expressed concern about Zach's ability to pull off a show, given TV's "grueling" demands. Were you surprised by her concerns?
"I wasn't, because I thought it came from a genuine place of wondering. The show was very stressful, taping five to six days a week, 16 hour days. I don't know if she asked that of other contestants."
Will he let celebrity go to his head?
"I'm thinking no, because he thinks he's very lucky to be in the position he's in. He's not 16, he's 26, and he's prepared for this. He's been thinking about the travel idea for awhile. He went to the live auditions for Your Own Show in Dallas and even though they didn't call him back, somehow John Mayer saw the YouTube video and endorsed it. John Mayer said he'd write a theme song for the show, which he's going to do."
Have you thought about how Zach and his show might change the way the public views people with disabilities?
"I think he'll make people more comfortable and open to who the person is behind the disability."
Can Max guest star? He loves big hotels, or as he calls them, "ih oh-els."
"I'll put in a good word."