Push Girls’ highlights abilities, bonds among women in wheelchairs

'Push Girls' stars, Auti Angel, left, and Mia Schaikewitz, right, dance it out at key locations throughout New York City to promote the Sundance Channel's new docu-series which explores the lives of four women living with paralysis.
"Push Girls" stars, Auti Angel, left, and Mia Schaikewitz, right, dance it out at key locations throughout New York City to promote the Sundance Channel's new docu-series which explores the lives of four women living with paralysis.

During last Monday's debut episode of Sundance Channel's "Push Girls," Atlanta native Mia Schaikewitz is working out with her friend Tiphany Adams, their upper torso muscles glistening with sweat as they pull weights.

"I don't think people have seen sexy in a wheelchair," Schaikewitz says over the scene. "So they can't fathom it. Being yourself is really sexy. Confidence is a turn-on."

In many ways, that summarizes what "Push Girls" is about. While people with paralysis face many obstacles, the four women in this cable TV series figure out ways to face, transcend and defeat their roadblocks. Being attractive, articulate and intelligent makes them perfect reality show fodder to boot.

(The first 30-minute episode of the series is available for free on Hulu.com. Sundance is airing all 14 episodes through August.)

Unlike TV's "Real Housewives" series or "Jersey Shore," the "Push Girls" women were all close friends before the show started, not cast members cobbled together to generate drama.

"It's not just about individual lives and the fact we're in wheelchairs, but what a strong female bond we have," said Schaikewitz, a Dunwoody (Ga.) High School graduate who's now a project manager at a Los Angeles graphic design and branding firm.

Though Schaikewitz considers herself a private person, she opens up her daily life to viewers. For instance, she allows cameras into her bathroom, showing her getting into a shower without assistance. "I want people to know what my life is like. I decided not to be shy about it. We're doing something bigger than a show."

Schaikewitz, 33, suffered an unusual spinal cord rupture at age 15 that, within hours, paralyzed her from the waist down. The show's other three women were in car accidents, the most common cause of paralysis.

There are about 12,000 new spinal cord injury patients per year, an estimated 270,000 total nationwide, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center in Birmingham. Research shows 80 percent are men.

In 2005, men with spinal cord injuries were given a big spotlight in the documentary "Murderball," where macho paraplegic guys played rugby in "Mad Max"-style wheelchairs. Since 2009, Fox's "Glee" has featured a teenage boy in a wheelchair.

In comparison, "There are not a lot of benchmarks for women in this situation to look at," said Patti Pasch, a therapist at Atlanta's Shepherd Center. Shepherd is considered one of the top treatment centers for spinal cord injuries, working with 800 to 1,000 patients a year.

Schaikewitz, a competitive swimmer growing up, spent three months at Shepherd after she became paralyzed. She cried nearly nonstop for two weeks, but bounced back relatively quickly from the shock, thanks in part to Shepherd's staff.

"While I was there, I realized I could be independent. It was a huge turning point. My life wasn't over. Let's bring it on!"

Minna Hong, a paraplegic for 13 years who helps mentor newly injured people at Shepherd, says she appreciates Sundance's effort to place females with this type of disability in a positive light.

"Our nation is visually conscious," she said. "We have much more scrutiny of women. It's really a breath of fresh air as far as reality shows go."

But Hong, 48, hopes future episodes will broaden the scope of the show. For instance, she'd like to learn more about the "Push Girls" women and their roles in the working world. Hong said she bristled when Angela Rockwood, a quadriplegic who does not have full finger dexterity, said in last week's episode she couldn't get a desk job.

"I know quads who can type like nobody's business. She can get a desk job!"

In the course of the show's season, Schaikewitz is seen struggling with romance, trying to get back to swimming after 17 years and clashing with her mother, a Marietta, Ga., attorney.

"My mom and I have very different viewpoints on what happened to me. It's been a long road to acceptance."

"Push Girls" airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel.


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