A Cast With Down Syndrome Brings Fresh Reality To Reality TV : Shots - Health News With the Emmy-nominated Born this Way poised to begin its second season July 26, the cast, co-creator and fans explain why the show has become such a hit.
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A Cast With Down Syndrome Brings Fresh Reality To Reality TV

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A Cast With Down Syndrome Brings Fresh Reality To Reality TV

A Cast With Down Syndrome Brings Fresh Reality To Reality TV

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

"Born This Way" is not exactly like other TV reality shows, though it comes from a man who helped invent the genre. Jonathan Murray is one of the creators of "The Real World," that show about a group of young people from different backgrounds. "Born This Way" is similar, except for one thing - all the cast members have Down syndrome. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Since "The Real World," reality shows have had certain types - so does "Born This Way." There's the ladies' man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BORN THIS WAY")

SEAN MCELWEE: I love ladies. Hi, ladies.

ULABY: The musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BORN THIS WAY")

JOHN TUCKER: I am a rap artist, honey.

ULABY: The party girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BORN THIS WAY")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I party way too much.

ULABY: The drama queen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BORN THIS WAY")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I know I get offensive, and I know I'm kind of crazy.

ULABY: And the sweetheart.

RACHEL OSTERBACH: I'm Rachel. I'm 32, and I live with my mom and dad.

ULABY: Rachel Osterbach wears her red hair in a 1960s-style flip. She was recruited for "Born This Way" at a drama class for people with Down syndrome. When she was picked, she cried.

R. OSTERBACH: I actually cried from happiness. That is true - because I always wanted to be on TV. I always wanted to be.

ULABY: Why - why did you want to be on TV?

R. OSTERBACH: Why? Because I like to be like the regular people on TV.

ULABY: Osterbach and her parents, Laurie and Gary, are in the "Born This Way" production offices in Van Nuys, Calif. The company also makes "Project Runway" and "Keeping Up With The Kardashians." That concerned Rachel's dad.

GARY OSTERBACH: We knew they were experienced, but then again, when you're experienced in shows like the Kardashians, that doesn't necessarily make you feel like your daughter is going to come off great.

ULABY: But Rachel Osterbach does come off great - so does the rest of the cast.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BORN THIS WAY")

R. OSTERBACH: We are seven friends, each unique.

ULABY: "Born This Way" has been an unexpected hit for its network, A&E, with a more than 80 percent rise in viewership over its first season. Season 2 starts next week. Other reality stars could learn much from this cast about handling conflict. There's lots of hugging and forgiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BORN THIS WAY")

R. OSTERBACH: If you have a problem, you tell me, OK? But don't get up and walk away, OK?

ULABY: And when alcohol appears, it's sipped during sweet family dinners.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BORN THIS WAY")

G. OSTERBACH: More wine?

R. OSTERBACH: No.

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: The creator of "Born This Way," Jonathan Murray, says what's compelling is the drama of young people everywhere with extra challenges. Making this show, he says, demanded a delicateness uncommon to the genre.

JONATHAN MURRAY: In reality TV, you don't get to play the small moments as much as I would like to. It has to be big and loud, and someone needs to flip a table at the end of act one.

ULABY: In "Born This Way," Rachel Osterbach's parents have to deal with their daughter getting turned down by potential boyfriends twice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BORN THIS WAY")

R. OSTERBACH: We could be close friends if you want.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That'll work.

R. OSTERBACH: Want to be close friends? How about a hug?

G. OSTERBACH: That was the toughest part - to watch it on TV and know that, you know, there's now approximately 1 million people also watching your daughter get rejected, and then...

LAURIE OSTERBACH: Twice.

ULABY: It was hard on Rachel Osterbach, too.

R. OSTERBACH: I don't like being rejected on film. Well, at first, I didn't want that in there because I hate being let down.

ULABY: But it was OK, you said, right?

R. OSTERBACH: It was OK, but I don't like being rejected, so I wish it wasn't on film because I want no one to know that I get let down a lot.

ULABY: In a way, says disability advocate David Perry, this is progress. He's not generally the biggest fan of reality shows, but he likes how "Born This Way" holds people with Down syndrome to the same standard as other reality stars.

DAVID PERRY: I like seeing struggle. I like seeing young adults with Down syndrome struggling with questions that young adults struggle with.

ULABY: Perry's son has Down syndrome. Too often, he says, they appear on TV as innocent children.

PERRY: Or it can be kind of angelic. There's a whole tradition of people with Down syndrome being angels on Earth, being specially chosen by God, living without sin.

ULABY: Perry says this show features complex characters. Right now, he adds, they're among the less than 1 percent of TV characters with disabilities. They're also among the first generation of people with Down syndrome who've benefited from broad social changes, such as mainstreaming and the Americans With Disabilities Act, says Rachel Osterbach's parents, Laurie and Gary.

G. OSTERBACH: Everything started to change late '70s, early '80s. She's been in early intervention since she was a month old. You know, if she had been born probably five years before that, none of that would have existed. So people paved the path for us before we were there.

ULABY: And they've continued it by showing their family to a wide audience.

L. OSTERBACH: I didn't think we're going to get it get the acceptance like we did. And that's what I hoped by doing this, besides them seeing just how sweet Rachel is.

R. OSTERBACH: Thank you, mom.

ULABY: "Born This Way" was just nominated for three Emmys, including best reality show in its category. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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