‘Push Girls’ Shatters Disability Perceptions

By , June 5, 2012

I’d like to forgive Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times’ T.V. writer, for his lukewarm review of Push Girls, which premiered last night on the Sundance Channel. Push Girl tracks four dynamic women with acquired mobility disabilities –- four paraplegics and one quadriplegic — as they each tackle life, their careers and love.

That these five girls “are not representative” of people with disabilities, as the New York Times says, could not be farther from the truth. Tiphany is a pretty blonde who uses hand controls to drive her sports car. There’s Auti, a Latina hip-hop dancer, who has a dance chair with dollar signs on her rims. Mia is a former athlete and Angela is an aspiring model. A fifth girl, Chelsie, will appear in later episodes.

True, they are not representative of disability in the same way that Snooki and The Situation are not representative of the Jersey Shore; but people with disabilities share an ethos. We’re all struggling to adapt to an able-bodied world, and we constantly encounter obstacles that have less to do with physical barriers and more to do with attitudes. It’s a common denominator that bounds us.

Take Angela, the show’s sole quadriplegic who wants to be a model, an occupation that, for someone with nearly full paralysis, flies in the face of convention. Even though more retailers like Target now use models with physical and intellectual disabilities, Angela has several awkward phone conversations with modeling agencies that tell her they don’t have wheelchair model opportunities.

When Angela shows up for a photo shoot, the photographer can’t think outside the box: He stands there, befuddled at how to help her pose. He looks on in silent horror as Angela’s nurse punches Angela’s legs to work out the spasms that come with paralysis. The camera doesn’t fully capture the photographer’s smirk, though he quips that Angela wanting to model is akin to “a man with no arms wanting to pitch baseball.” This scene tacitly reveals how perceptions about disability can be hurtful to a person’s career and livelihood.

That these five girls “are not representative” of people with disabilities really doesn’t mean anything to people with disabilities, who are not used to being represented at all. Yes, the Push Girls are gorgeous and live in the artificial model-actress-singer bubble that is L.A.  Even their wheelchairs are as sleek and glamorous as their eye shadow.

The differences end there. The stairs they maneuver, the negative attitudes they encounter, the jobs they are turned down for, the questions they are asked by men who are curious about the girls’ abilities to, O.K., I’ll say it – put on lingerie, climb out of their chair, prop themselves into a bed and do whatever comes next. All of that is universal.

You can’t really blame critics who aren’t used to seeing smart, beautiful and provocative girls with disabilities. Such types don’t appear in our line of sight on a daily basis. Push Girls shows that the disability community is truly diverse; it includes thousands of young and ambitious girls (and guys) with disabilities, who, having played the hand they were dealt, have moved on and are determined to live the life they want. As this new reality show works to shatter perceptions, the Push Girls will become even more even more relevant to us all.

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Author: Suzanne Robitaille

Suzanne Robitaille is the founder of abledbody.com, a website on disability issues. She is the former assistive technology columnist for BusinessWeek.com, giving rise to her fascination with technology that helps people with disabilities surmount barriers in the workplace and life space. She is also the author of The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices. As a writer and blogger, Suzanne is a trusted source of disability information for The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, HealthDay, Media Post, Ability Magazine, Disaboom and more. Suzanne lost her hearing at age four and grew up profoundly deaf. In 2002 she received a cochlear implant, which she credits as "the ultimate assistive technology."