During last week’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 women with paralysis face many obstacles, the four in this cable series figure out ways to face them, transcend them and defeat them. And being attractive, articulate and intelligent makes them perfect reality show fodder to boot.
(The first 30-minute episode is available for free on Hulu. Sundance is set to air 14 episodes through August.)
Unlike TV’s “Real Housewives” series or “Jersey Shore,” the women of “Push Girls” 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,” says Schaikewitz, a Dunwoody High School graduate who’s now a project manager at a Los Angeles graphic design and branding firm. “We truly support each other.”
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, had an unusual spinal cord rupture at age 15 that caused paralysis from the waist down.
The other three women on the show were all in car accidents, the most common way to become paralyzed.
There are about 12,000 new spinal cord injury patients per year, with an estimated 270,000 total nationwide, according to The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center in Birmingham, Ala. 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 teen male 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 people with spinal cord injuries, handling 800 to 1,000 patients a year.
Schaikewitz spent three months at the Shepherd Center after she became paralyzed in 1996. After crying non-stop for two weeks, she bounced back relatively quickly from the shock, thanks in part to Shepherd’s staff.
“While I was there, I realized I could be independent,” she said. “It was a huge turning point. My life wasn’t over. Let’s bring it on!”
Minna Hong, a 48-year-old paraplegic for 13 years who helps mentor newly injured people at Shepherd, said she appreciates Sundance’s effort to place females with this type of disability in a positive light when there is so much negativity around wheelchairs. “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.”
Hong hopes future episodes will broaden the scope of the discussions beyond relationships. For instance, she’d like to see more about them at work. And she bristled when Angela Rockwood, a quadriplegic who does not have full finger dexterity, said on the show that she couldn’t get a desk job. “I know quads who can type like nobody’s business,” Hong said. “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, an attorney in Marietta.
“My mom and I have very different viewpoints on what happened to me,” Schaikewitz said. “It’s been a long road to acceptance.”
10 p.m. Mondays, Sundance Channel.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk