Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 29, 2013

Adapted in TC: Reality TV: Pushing on with life, disabilities or not

Local columnist

---- — “What do you think of the Sundance Channel’s 'Push Girls'?”

Since the program aired in 2012, I’ve often been asked this question. "Push Girls" is a stylized reality TV program that follows four younger, typically attractive women who use wheelchairs. Three of the women are single, one is married. Reviews within and outside the disability community have been mixed. Some compliment Sundance for pushing boundaries (i.e., where the title comes from) and emphasizing the women’s abilities, not disabilities. Others question the producers' intent and think the scripts are superficial, voyeuristic and non-representative of most people with disabilities.

Based upon the publicity for the show’s premiere, I thought I knew exactly how I’d react to "Push Girls."

I was wrong.

Yes, some aspects of the show are overly focused on the women’s appearance, their youth and overt sexual behavior. They often appear stereotypical in a Hollywood way, immature and naive. At times, it’s obvious that they’re performing for the camera. They say and do stupid things. The economic and social privileges they have seem disconnected from the reality of most people’s lives. If the able-bodied world is learning about people with disabilities from this program alone, then it is too narrow a view.

And, "Push Girl" highlights the less commonly seen experiences of women with disabilities: negotiating power and control within a romantic relationship, deciding whether to have children, divorce, financial responsibilities, driving a vehicle, homemaking, participating in sports, caring for one’s health, making a living, dating, finding a place to live, interacting with extended family and sexuality. If you strip away the TV glamour, the core human issues these women have to contend with are still there. At the end of the day, it’s still not easy to live with a disability.

I especially like the sisterhood of the women. In every episode, they assist each other in a way that only a woman who’s been there can. Sometimes it’s by confronting one another with the need for marital counseling, AA or becoming independent by living alone for the first time since one’s accident. In both a frightening and touching scene, one woman teaches another how to evacuate her apartment by descending a staircase in her wheelchair.

"Push Girls" also challenges a rigid definition of beauty and independence for women with disabilities in our culture. In several scenes, the cameras roll as the women compete with able-bodied peers for romantic, including sexual, relationships. It’s not readily discussed, but many women with disabilities, like lots of other women, know that sexual activity is a formidable “equalizer” in perhaps attracting, but not necessarily keeping, a partner. The women of "Push Girls" are charting their own paths.

When I was closer in age to the "Push Girls," my vocational rehabilitation counselor suggested I enter the Ms. Wheelchair Michigan Pageant. Her reasoning was that I’d only had my disability for a year and I needed to learn how to live in the world as a person with a disability, from women with disabilities. At the time, my opportunities to meet other women with disabilities were limited. I lived over 60 miles from my rehab center and there were few people using wheelchairs at my university.

I actually entered the pageant twice. During the first pageant, one of my most difficult moments came when some of the other contestants said I didn’t look disabled enough to be in the pageant. I was devastated. I felt like I didn’t have a group to belong to. Instead of fleeing, I fought my wariness and truly got to know the other contestants and therefore, myself. I left as the first runner-up.

A few years later, I entered again, won the title and became one of the 10 finalists at the national pageant. In both instances, I garnered college scholarships as well as public speaking and interviewing skills which aided in my employment.

Equally important, I met women from all over the state and country who used wheelchairs. The particulars of their disabilities and backgrounds were wide-ranging. As a newbie, I wanted to ask them the practical and shortcut ideas — everything from how to advocate for myself per my health care to what inventions I could adopt to pull my wheelchair into my car. By showing me their partners and children, college degrees, hobbies and volunteerism certificates, photos of their homes and travels, health habits and assistive equipment, they showed me how they’d created and navigated their lives. I also made some lifelong friends.

Today, women with disabilities worldwide can connect on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, etc. There are non-profits, books, schools, media depictions, pageants, organizations and opportunities for every demographic. "Push Girls" is but one of those depictions. Many of us may not be able to relate to everything these women are presenting. They aren’t addressing all of the issues for people with disabilities or all people with a disability. However, I champion their right to share their voices. After all of these years, the needs are still there.

Push on, indeed.

Hall of Fame Traverse City native Patrick Joseph Carroll, 26, who lived an inspired life with cystic fibrosis. Carroll was a multi-talented musical artist, master degreed social worker and all- around great guy. As the recipient of a bi-lateral lung transplant in 2007, he helped demonstrate the benefit of organ donation and brought awareness to the needs of persons living with cystic fibrosis. Patrick Carroll lived an extraordinary life and died May 31.