The most obvious question about Push Girls, the Sundance Channel’s new reality TV show, is whether it accurately shapes perceptions about individuals who use wheelchairs. A lot of sweat goes into legitimate advocacy to help wheelchair users overcome issues ranging from access to reimbursement. So what is the net effect of rolling out four attractive women in front of a video camera and following them through activities of daily living that—captured from the waist up— might be indistinguishable from many other reality shows that feature stylish women? As I watched the first episode, that answer was not always clear.
If the mission of Push Girls at some level is to leave the able-bodied with a sense of what it is to be a rank-and-file paraplegic or quadriplegic, then the show can be its own worst enemy. Each of the well-coiffed stars has a cover girl face and a slender frame, and is outfitted in trendy clothes that include lethal 5-inch spiked heels. Not necessarily the profile of an average wheelchair user. Among the group is Angela Rockwood, a professional model who appears in this magazine and elsewhere in advertisements for mobility devices. Rockwood seemed to get the most face time in this episode. I wondered if the producers’ devotion to Rockwood and an overall bent toward glamour and sex appeal would obscure any meaningful messages the show might offer about living life in a wheelchair. A little more than 2 minutes into the show, when Rockwood’s house mate, Tiphany, brassily announced she was perfectly capable of having sex, “…lots and lots of sex,” I figured I had my answer.
At that point, the promise of Push Girls seemed to have lost its way. It strayed even further from the breakthrough program I’d hoped it would become as the women discussed the tawdry aspects of their love lives. The show unexpectedly corrected course, however, during a segment in which Rockwood—a quadriplegic who lacks dexterity in her hands—attempts to get work. In this single vignette, Rockwood delivers a powerful primer about the limited incomes on which many disabled individuals are expected to support themselves, the access problems they still must navigate, and the lopsided unemployment figures that pervade the disabled population.
Was the sex and glamour distracting? Yes. But saying the cheesecake served by Push Girls failed to improve job prospects for the disabled is like saying Ironside‘s focus on criminal law failed to jump start the Americans With Disabilities Act. Neither program ever claimed to be an instrument of public policy.
The one question about Push Girls that truly matters is whether the show provides an overall benefit to the community of wheelchair users. As lightly as the first episode brushed over topics that deserved deeper exploration, the answer is “Yes.” There are signs this program can cloak positive educational messages about wheelchair users in glamour the way M*A*S*H used comedy to educate viewers about the true nature of war. The stars of Push Girls hold the potential—through the power of their own celebrity—to spread purposeful messages globally about the obstacles wheelchair users face in ways that are imaginative and effective. And maybe it was high time that 21st century advocacy got itself a little makeover anyway.
Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in sharpening up your own advocacy IQ but don’t have cable, Push Girls may not be available to you. Not to worry. A real life advocate for wheelchair users premieres in this issue’s digital edition of Rehab Management as we unveil a new column by Ann Eubank, LMSW, OTR/L, ATP, CAPS, vice president of community initiatives for Users First. Ann opens up about how therapists can use advocacy and empowerment to rise above the status quo and create gains for mobility users. The digital edition is free and it’s portable, so log on anywhere and check it out!
It is with great sadness I report that Kevin Fraser, president of Star Cushion Products, Inc, passed away peacefully June 17. Kevin had many friends and colleagues throughout the rehab community, and he will be missed. The staff of Rehab Management extends its condolences to the Fraser family.