March is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month, and I can't think of a cooler person to raise awareness (and hell) than Zach Anner. I first spoke with the comedian and YouTube star back in 2011, after he'd won the Oprah Your Own Show contest and scored a travel show, Rollin' With Zach. Then I got to interview his mom.
Zach's memoir, If at Birth You Don't Succeed, came out yesterday to rave reviews; it's as engaging and amusing as he is on camera. Zach tells a good, wry anecdote, whether he's plotting to meet Cindy Crawford as a kid or taking a family jaunt to Pompeii, an ancient city wholly lacking in ADA accommodations. He's got great self-deprecating humor, describing his childhood physical therapists' attempt to figure out how he could undress himself as "Apollo 13 for basic life skills." And he can be heartfelt, too, as when he discusses hooking up with his girlfriend, Gillian ("My mistake had been to label my body a burden, rather than a tool.")
Although Zach notes he never expected to be a disability advocate, he's helped a lot of people understand to not feel sorry for him or people with disabilities, exactly what I want for Max. I particularly appreciated his take on the term "differently abled"—as he says, "Do we every talk about anybody being 'differently abled' when they are extraordinary at something, or does it always imply a disadvantage? We don't say Tiger Woods is a differently abled golfer because he's better than anybody else in the world. I've never seen a poster that says Differently Abled Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Live at Carnegie Hall! It just never rang true for me."
Zach took a few minutes from his book tour to answer some questions.
What's the most common question you get about having CP and how do you usually respond?
"Can I help you with that?" and I respond with either "Sure" or "No, I can open this package of gummy bears by myself."
What do you think people often don't get about CP?
That CP is not the most interesting thing about the person who has it. If it is, they are a boring person.
One good thing about CP is...
There is nothing inherently good thing about CP except it gives you empathy for people struggling. It’s recognizing that all personal struggles large and small are cut from the same cloth.
One meh thing about CP is...
I think it’s a double-edged sword. CP has actually opened a lot doors for me because it sets me apart and I’m able to funnel my talents and humor through it. But I’m often either underestimated or over-praised simply because I’m doing what I’m doing with a physical disability.
|Performing stand-up for "Rollin with Zach" at Caroline's prompted thousands of viewers to chuckle to themselves as they labeled me a "sit-down comic"—like they were the first ones to think of it.|
My response is the life I live and not paying attention to that stuff. We can’t do our best if our lives are in response to those who expect the least from us.
Fill in the rest of this sentence: If Donald Trump had cerebral palsy, he would...
...build a ramp instead of a wall.
What sort of therapies do you still get for CP?
I just got finished with my 16-week fitness program, Buff Buddies, that is on youtube and very not safe for work. I don’t get physical therapy anymore but I do get massages because they allow, and in fact encourage, more nudity.
|Well, this one's pretty self-explanatory and doesn't need a caption. Clearly I'm just running on a treadmill, as anyone else might do.|
Bush Quail ’92. I’m assuming you could get them pretty cheap these days.
If you could invent one gadget to help people with CP, what would it be?
I’ll use this question not to come up with some fictional thing but let you in on a sexy gadget I use. It’s an electronic heated bidet toilet seat. I have pretty good mobility and dexterity and I don’t really need it but some people who have CP require assistance in the bathroom and there’s nothing that feels more infantilizing and these things can give people their privacy back, which I think is great. Plus it’s stupid that in the 21st Century we still use toilet paper.
What did your parents do right in terms of raising a kid with CP?
My parents always encouraged me to pursue my passions instead of being weighed down by my problems. When I wanted to move across the country to go to college, instead of saying “Gee, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” they said “If you get in, we’ll figure out a way to make it work.” I come from a very creative family and we’re all about making each other laugh and finding humor in struggles.
|Me practicing my best Hannibal Lecter/Kanye West impression on a standing board|
Give your kid the freedom and the tools to become themselves. Don’t coddle them or keep them in a bubble. Don’t let your child’s identity or your identity be defined by the cerebral palsy. Sometimes even those of us who are living through it buy into the stigmas. Always ask yourself, am I letting my child reach his or her full potential?
Images: Zach Anner