Reality TV has taught us that housewives from certain counties can be vicious, C-list celebrities can be trained to cha-cha and the happiest denizens on the Jersey Shore insist on clean laundry.

But at its best, the genre is providing a more valuable lesson by spotlighting and celebrating people with physical disabilities. This season, deaf actress Marlee Matlin has outwitted the competition on "The Celebrity Apprentice," James Durbin, who has both Tourette and Asperger syndromes, rocked his way into the final eight on "American Idol," and a guy who's deaf (Luke Adams) battled another with Asperger's (Zev Glassenberg) last month on "The Amazing Race."

Television can provide an intimate entry point into the lives of people who are otherwise misunderstood or underestimated, said Andy Dehnart, who teaches at Florida's Stetson University and runs the reality-TV website

"People are seeing that Marlee Matlin can be just as witty and cutthroat as anybody else, and that sometimes she gets frustrated that people are talking to her translator instead of her," said Dehnart. "That's educational. You might not have liked Heather Mills on 'Dancing With the Stars,' but the fact that she only has one leg had nothing to do with it."

Documentary filmmaker Dominic Gill hopes to open eyes with his new Universal Sports cable series "Take a Seat," in which he shares a tandem bike with physically challenged partners during a cross-country trip -- but he's also wary of labeling TV as the perfect teacher.

"Viewers tend to kick their shoes off and their guard is down, so you share a really valuable message when they're at their most receptive," he said. "Having said that, you have to really make an effort. Television has the capacity to be the most powerful tool, but because it's so ubiquitous, it can be easily ignored."

'Coming-out party' for fans

One group that's not ignoring the trend are fans who face their own physical challenges.

Brandon DeVincenzi, 12, of Brentwood, Calif., became obsessed with "Idol" this year because he has Tourette syndrome, too.

"It's been like a coming-out party for Brandon," his mother told the Contra Costra Times. "Before this, he found it really difficult to accept his Tourette's, or even talk about it. James [Durbin] has put a face on Tourette's and is showing Brandon that he can be comfortable with himself."

Another reality contestant who's serving as an inspiration is Zach Anner, a comedian with cerebral palsy who will get his own travel series after co-winning "Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star." Anner was selected as a contestant after posting a hilarious audition video in which he pitched a show about physically challenged people traveling around the world. The video included his phone number, and Anner said he answered about 100 calls a day from people who'd seen it online, including a man whose son had just been in an accident.

"He was crying because my idea gave him inspiration that he and his son could travel someday," he said. "That was astounding to me. I never thought about the disability angle that much, but I discovered there was this huge community that was waiting for something like this."

Sarah Reinertsen, an amputee who finished seventh on 'The Amazing Race 10," learned the same thing, most strikingly while taking a walk in New York City in a short skirt that exposed her metal prosthetic leg. A stranger recognized her from the show and said his friend had recently had his leg blown off in Iraq.

"His friend had been totally depressed, but watching me on the show had totally renewed his hope," she said. "He thanked me for changing his [friend's] outlook and his life," Reinertsen said. "That's when I realized just how powerful the show really was and that it could help change perceptions and lives."

Winning is No. 1

Of course, reality contestants don't sweat it out just to be role models. They want to succeed, too.

Reinertsen recalls the feeling of triumph when she managed to scale the Great Wall of China.

Rachel Swanson, a Stillwater resident with severe cerebral palsy, participated in the Minneapolis-to-Milwaukee leg of Take a Seat, just the latest in a series of personal adventures that have included downhill skiing and mountain climbing.

"It's important to Rachel to be a model to others, but it's also just another opportunity in her life to participate and gain personally," said her friend Joan Skluzacek.

One of the early reality stars to feel that sense of accomplishment was St. Paul native Josh Blue, who won the NBC comedy competition "Last Comic Standing" in 2006. Blue, who taped a TV special this weekend in Minneapolis, is more driven to be funny than to be inspirational.

"It's a cool feeling when people come up and thank me for not just presenting cerebral palsy, but disability in general, in an educational fashion," he said. "But ultimately that's not my goal. I just love doing standup."