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Wed June 13, 2012
'Push Girls' Wheel Chairs Through Life And Love
Originally published on Thu June 14, 2012 8:39 am
At 15, Mia Schaikewitz was a star on her high school swim team, when a blood vessel ruptured in her spine and left her paralyzed from the waist down. In 1992, Auti Angel was a professional hip hop dancer when the impact of a car crash severed her spinal cord and left her a paraplegic.
Schaikewitz and Angel are two of four friends featured on the new Sundance Channel reality show Push Girls, which hopes to defy the stereotypes of women in wheelchairs.
NPR's Neal Conan talks with Schaikewitz and Angel about the show and how they've reinvented their lives since their injuries.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Angela Rockwood says her life was practically perfect in 2001. She'd gotten a deal with a modeling and acting agency. She was engaged, ready to start a new life. A car accident changed all that. A broken neck and a spinal cord left her almost entirely paralyzed from the neck down.
She's one of four women now featured on a new reality television series "Push Girls." Ten years after her accident, worried about paying her mortgage and for 24-hour health care, she's trying to restart her modeling career.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PUSH GIRLS")
ANGELA ROCKWOOD: The biggest challenge that I'm going to face in finding a modeling agency is they're not going to know what to do with me. But come on, let's face it. I am a woman that's paralyzed. I do not have dexterity in my fingers. I can't go and work in an office job and type at a computer.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good afternoon.
ROCKWOOD: Do you guys have any open calls for modeling?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thursdays, from three to four.
ROCKWOOD: Three to four. And do I have to ask for anyone in particular?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nope. Just walk in.
ROCKWOOD: OK, bye. Just walk in.
CONAN: "Push Girls" follows Angela Rockwood and three other women in wheelchairs through their daily lives, as they continue to reinvent themselves and challenge perceptions. Today, we'll talk with two of the women from the show. We also want to hear from those of you - if you're in a wheelchair, what from your former life did you keep, and what has been lost? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.
Later in the program, NPR's Mike Pesca on bad calls in boxing and baseball. But first, two of the stars of the Sundance Channel's "Push Girls" join us. From NPR West in Culver City, California, Mia Schaikewitz, nice to have you with us.
MIA SCHAIKEWITZ: Thank you.
CONAN: And Auti Angel, nice of you to be with us, too.
AUTI ANGEL: Oh, thank you so much.
CONAN: And let me begin with you. You were able to keep your career, in a sense. You were a dancer before your accident, and you still are now, but there - I have to suspect there are many fewer opportunities now.
ANGEL: There are not fewer opportunities. I just have to make opportunities occur for myself. People out there weren't aware that people in wheelchairs can still dance, and I am making it known that we do dance.
CONAN: You do, and it is - but it's going to be an effort, no?
ANGEL: It's definitely an effort. I did have to fight my way back into the industry and show them my capabilities and what I am able to do and show them that I have some really mad skills.
CONAN: There's a scene of you ballroom dancing. You entered a competition, I guess just on a whim.
ANGEL: I did, and it really took me out of my comfort zone. I was so comfortable with being free with dancing with myself, because hip-hop dancing is a self-expression. Although you can dance with others, you pretty much do the same thing, but in a solo magnitude.
With ballroom, I had to give up that freedom and learn how to take - or follow, actually, not take the lead. I'm always wanting to take the lead.
ANGEL: And so I had to get out of my comfort zone and learn how to follow, which actually helped me in my marriage.
CONAN: And how long have you been married?
ANGEL: I have been married for five years now to my wonderful husband, Eric.
CONAN: And one of the developments we see in the show is you guys are considering having a baby.
ANGEL: We are. I am at the age of 42, and, you know, it's the new 30s. But it's still, like, my body being paralyzed, the doctors, sometimes they say that a woman in a wheelchair, their body ages faster than an able-bodied woman. So, you know, literally, my body's probably at the age of 45, 47. And so we're working hard on trying to have a child right now. We haven't been successful for the past, I would say, two years. So we're taking extra measures, and you'll have to watch the show to find out.
CONAN: OK. Mia Schaikewitz, we wanted to ask you about - you were 15 when a blood vessel burst in your spinal column, and you've been paralyzed from the waist-down ever since, very much into swimming then. You were unable to continue that.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Yeah, at the time, it was funny, because I realized when I got paralyzed that I learned there was a lot more things that I could do than I couldn't. I was taught that when I was in the rehab hospital, and I knew that I could go back to swimming, but at the time, I felt like it was just an emotional hurdle that I wasn't really ready to make.
So I knew physically I could do it, but, you know, the emotional side was a whole different journey. So, yes, through the show, you do see me get ready and finally have that moment where I am ready to get back in the pool and go back to my sport that I loved at the time when I got paralyzed.
CONAN: And there is enormous amount that you've managed to keep from your physical life: the physical activity, keeping in shape, all that sort of thing.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Yeah, they say that, you know, when you get paralyzed, it doesn't really change who you are. It makes you more of who you are. I think for me, I was very independent before I got paralyzed, and I strive for that still. I mean, I continue to do athletics, and I, you know, still have a career. I do everything I did before, if not with more vigor now, I would say.
CONAN: And what job do you work?
SCHAIKEWITZ: I'm a project manager for a graphic design and branding firm.
CONAN: So that's something - the office is wheelchair accessible, it's not a problem?
SCHAIKEWITZ: Yeah, it is. And I kind of also seem to make things accessible when they're not. There's a lot of moments where we come up to a place that may not have a ramp, or, you know, it may be a little bit too tight to get in, but we're always problem-solving and finding a way to make it work.
So even if I found a job that seemed to be a little bit, you know, difficult in the access, I don't think I would let it stop me from getting that job. I would just make it work and figure out a way to make it accessible for me.
CONAN: We're talking with two of the "Push Girls" on the Sundance Channel's new TV show, Mia Schaikewitz, who just heard. Also with us, Auti Angel. And we'd like to hear from those of you who are in wheelchairs. What have you managed to keep from your previous lives, and what have you lost? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. And let's go to Tony, Tony with us from North Salt Lake City.
TONY: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Hi, Tony.
TONY: I was paralyzed at the age of 14, and it was in a small town called Colville out in the country, and there nothing was set up for people in wheelchairs. So we moved back to my former hometown in West Bountiful. And my biggest concern at that age was whether - whether I'd ever have a girlfriend in this condition.
And, as it turns out, when I moved back home, the prettiest girl in the whole eighth grade wanted to go out with me, and it totally changed my entire, you know, my self-confidence. And I found that over time, my upper half started to develop into - I was always a pretty little guy, and then the upper half kind of developed into pretty athletic shape.
So it - you know, you lose some things, and other things, you know, the good - some good comes with the bad, anyway, sometimes.
CONAN: Mia Schaikewitz, dating, that's something that people don't think about.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Yeah, you know, it's - I completely identify with the story, because when I was first got paralyzed, my biggest concern was also going back to high school and feeling accepted. And my high school wasn't accessible at the time. It is now. But at the time, I never knew anybody else in a wheelchair.
So I didn't have a role model. I didn't know what was possible. I definitely felt the same way. I didn't think that, you know, a guy would want to go out with me. And, you know, but then I started seeing the opposite happen. I think sometimes the fear, you know, that you have is really in your mind, and when you go out into the reality of life, you see that it turns around.
And my biggest lesson going back to high school was realizing that, you know, it was really what I felt inside and what I put out there was the reflection I got back. When I went back to high school and felt confident, people were happy to see me, and they just said, you know, she's the same, just sitting down. And once I realized I still was who I was, I still went after, you know, the guys that I still liked, and they reciprocated. Because I think once you realize it's just a person and not necessarily the wheelchair, then you realize it's a beautiful life out there, whether you're sitting or not.
CONAN: Auti Angel, your accident was a little bit later in life, at 22. And at least the character that comes across in the show, you don't strike me as somebody who is all that fearful.
ANGEL: No, I was pretty bold. Actually, I'm the one who pretty much nailed my husband. I met him at a barbecue. I knew his brother, and his brother came up to me. I knew his brother prior to my car accident, and his brother came up to me and said, you know, Auti, I heard about your accident. I'm really sorry, but you still look amazing. I was like thank you. Who's that? And I was looking at his brother.
And he said that's my younger brother. I was like, ooh, younger? So the cougar kitty in me kicked in, and I went after him.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Tony, good luck to you.
TONY: Oh, yes, and you mentioned having a role model. You know, I did have a guy that came to see me in the hospital before I even got out, and that was huge, too. So anybody that gets a chance to mentor a younger kid that's been injured, totally, you know, do it, because that made a big difference to have him come tell me what kind of sports I could participate in that I hadn't even thought of - you know, skiing, horseback riding, waterskiing, basketball, racing. There's all kinds of great things I wasn't even aware of until this guy came to tell me. So anyone who gets a chance, do that. It's huge.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Yeah, I'm still learning all the things I can still do. I just went and did some ice hockey, called sled hockey.
CONAN: Ice hockey?
SCHAIKEWITZ: Yeah, yeah. They have ice hockey even adapted. Super-cool.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Shane, Shane with us from Cincinnati.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Hello, Shane.
ANGEL: Hi, Shane.
SHANE: Hi, how's it going?
SHANE: I'm a P-12, L-1 spinal cord injury. I was injured in 1998 in a hiking accident. I fell 85 feet and landed on my back. Yeah, I just wanted to say that I think I've retained a basic sense of who I am. You know, I don't think that's really changed at all. I think I'm still me.
And I was always such an independent person before my accident, and I still am. You know, I work. I'm an administrative assistant in an office. But I don't know. I find that I'm really limited as far as jobs, work, you know, stuff kind of goes. It's a really tough job market out there for anybody right now, and I don't know, especially for somebody with a disability like a spinal cord injury. I find I'm very limited in, I don't know, what I can do for work, what I can do for a living.
CONAN: What would you like to do?
SHANE: Oh, geez, anything.
SHANE: I was a literature major in college, but I don't know. It's hard to find jobs that, you know, will work with your hours and, you know, how often you can stay in the wheelchair and just work around your disability. It's really hard to find a place that'll, you know, work with you with that kind of stuff.
CONAN: Well, Shane, good luck.
SHANE: All right.
CONAN: Thanks very much. We're talking with two of the stars of the Sundance Channel reality show "Push Girls." The song you're listening to now is called "Stand Up," by Ludacris. Among the dancers on the music video: Auti Angel. She started a wheelchair dance group in 2003 called Colors in Motion. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking with two of the stars of the new reality show "Push Girls," Auti Angel and Mia Schaikewitz. If you're in a wheelchair, what from your former life did you keep? What's been lost? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.
Like many reality programs, the show focuses on any number of personal issues, including romance. In the show's first episode, we see Mia Schaikewitz in bed with her boyfriend, Dave.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PUSH GIRLS)
SCHAIKEWITZ: You were talking in your sleep last night.
DAVE: Was I?
DAVE: You were trying to have conversations with me last night in your sleep.
SCHAIKEWITZ: I was?
DAVE: You don't remember?
Dave is my boyfriend, and we've been dating for about a year and a half. I find that people are surprised when they find out I don't date guys in wheelchairs. I prefer to date able-bodied guys.
DAVE: Gotta go.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Yeah, that will definitely keep me from getting fired.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Showing up on time for once?
This is the longest relationship I've ever been in. Dave wants to move in together and take it to the next level, but I don't know if I'm ready for that. I love my freedom.
CONAN: Spoiler alert, in episode two, which aired on Monday night, Mia Schaikewitz, you and Dave decide things aren't working out so well.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Yeah, that's correct. I think we got to a point where we realized we care about each other completely, but there is one thing to relationships that's very important, and that's long-term goals. And if your long-term goals don't seem to be compatible, there seems to be an end. And we did have to come to that place.
And it felt like a very, you know, mature decision to make, because I am getting older and realize that, you know, I also want to have children someday. So I'm ready to move into a relationship that's also headed in that direction.
CONAN: And Auti Angel, I wanted to ask you: One of the things that we find out in these programs is that your concerns and your lives are like an awful lot of other people's, that things aren't really that different, and that "Push Girls" doesn't stand so much for the chairs as pushing boundaries.
ANGEL: Absolutely, and that's what I love about this show, is that it's - we have relatable stories that can be relatable to anybody, disabled or not. And I hate using the word disabled, because there's a lot of us who are able to do a lot more things than even able-bodied people. So it's like we're differently-abled.
But facing challenges in life, like being 42 and trying to have a child, Angela separating from her husband. You know, there are people out there who have separated from their loved ones. So our stories are definitely relatable, and I love that.
CONAN: Let's go next to Mark, Mark with us from Kansas.
MARK: Hi. How are you?
SCHAIKEWITZ: Hi, Mark.
CONAN: Good, thanks.
MARK: Thank you for taking my call.
MARK: I kind of have a different perspective on things. I was born with spina bifida, and have been paralyzed from the waist down all my life. You know, and I sometimes find it, you know, maybe a little more - you know, they were just talking about not - being differently-abled. Well, you know, I too am differently abled, and it's sometimes harder to relate to people who, you know, may be just newly, you know, paralyzed or, you know, impaired because of, you know, I'm not - I haven't had the experiences that they have.
But, again, I haven't let stuff like that stop me. I did professional theater as a stagehand for 20 years, and now am getting involved in politics and government.
ANGEL: That's awesome. Well, you know, I commend you, and I look at it - you know, because I teach hip-hop workshops to all different type of disabilities or different abilities, if we would say, and cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other elements, and knowing that these are children that have been born this way, and they are the light of my life. They inspire me. You guys inspire me more than you know.
And it - this is their - this is your normal. So, you know, life is just as it is, I would assume.
MARK: Yeah. My goal in life is to try to get more people who have impairments actively involved in government and politics so that, you know, the programs that serve us, you know, can be designed by people who actually use them.
ANGEL: I agree.
SCHAIKEWITZ: I agree 100 percent. I think, you know, even with the ADA, they make great strides to make accessible - you know, everything accessible. But if we're not out there using it, you know, then people also have the excuse as to it not being needed. And I think the more we do and the more we get out there and show up, that it makes great strides in changing things.
ANGEL: And I think that...
CONAN: Mark - excuse me for interrupting. I just wanted ask Mark - ADA, of course, the Americans with Disabilities Act. And it sounds to me like you've lived through the ADA era. What kind of difference has it made?
MARK: It has made more of a difference in public transportation. No longer are - you know, do a lot of times am I having to call a, you know, special bus to come get me. I can just go down to the corner, providing, you know, the place where I live has public transportation. But all the buses are now accessible.
You know, I can get into buildings easier, you know, and the - it's not an afterthought that, oh, where do we put the ramp? Or where do we place the elevator? Or do we place the elevator in these buildings?
CONAN: Mia, was I cutting you off?
ANGEL: No, actually it was me, Auti.
ANGEL: But also, you know, we still need to make more changes, because there's what's called a grandfather law to certain buildings that don't have to make changes, and they still have their stairs and no ramps and things. So there are still some changes that we need to make, and I'm commending you for stepping into government things and issues that you can make changes there.
CONAN: Mark, thanks very much.
MARK: Let me just say, you know, I agree the ADA is a great starting point, but you - we really have to, you know, get more involved and continue to, you know, update and work on accessibility and inclusion issues.
CONAN: Thanks again.
MARK: Thank you.
CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to - this is Jenny, Jenny with us from Reno.
JENNY: Yes. Hi, Neal.
JENNY: I'm very excited about this program, because we don't hear much about people's lives after an injury. And I am what society calls severely disabled, but like Mark said, I simply call myself differently-abled. And people, when they're around me enough, learn that I live pretty much a regular life.
I have to use a wheelchair and crutches. I'm an incomplete paraplegic, which means I have some use of my legs. And I'm fortunate to have that much. I'm very thankful. I was a horse trainer and a professional farrier before I was injured, and when I woke up paralyzed, I thought my life with horses was all over.
And I wanted to share with people that I met a miniature horse that I now own. His name is Knockout. And he and I are national miniature horse champions. And I'm willing to - and I do share him with youth, and I would share him with anyone that was, you know, disabled. Excuse me, I'm sorry.
CONAN: That's OK, you've obviously got a dog, too.
JENNY: I definitely do.
ANGEL: I love miniature horses.
JENNY: Much noisier than the horse would ever get. But I wanted to share that. People might be able to give that a thought, because when you can find a sport, no matter what it is - and, you know, I'm so glad they have adapted sports for people. But you have to get out and network. If you sit at home and feel sorry for yourself, your life won't be near as full as it can be if you advocate and research and find out what you can do.
SCHAIKEWITZ: And you'll find out you can do a lot more than you can't do.
JENNY: Life is worth going on. So thank you so much, and I thank your guests.
ANGEL: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Jenny.
JENNY: Uh-huh. Bye.
CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Steve, and Steve's on the line with us from Richmond.
ANGEL: Hi, Steve.
STEVE: I was an in-completer, also. How are you all, by the way?
ANGEL: Great, great, thank you.
STEVE: I'm feeling well today. I had a condition. I was born with (technical difficulties). It sounds like something out of "The Wizard of Oz," called a spondylolisthesis, which means that my sacrum and my last lumbar vertebrae were not correctly connected.
And after playing football and 25 years of ice hockey and golf and all that, my last lumbar vertebrae was three-quarters of an inch out of whack. And they went in and they pulled it out, and they put screws and rods and all that stuff in. And sure enough, I felt better. And they went in to take all that stuff out and clean it up, and during the cleaning-out part of it, they hit a nerve with a laser, and I lost complete use of my thighs and suddenly was, you know, supposed to be coming out of surgery, ready to go back to the real world, and I came out of surgery not being able to move from the waist down...
STEVE: ...and went through an extensive eight, nine months of physical therapy...
STEVE: ...fortunately re-waking those nerves up. And what I found during this experience - and I don't know if the ladies can identify with this or not - you find out who your friends are and who your acquaintances are because you're...
SCHAIKEWITZ: Yeah. And you find out who you are.
STEVE: You definitely find out who you are...
SCHAIKEWITZ: Yeah. Important.
STEVE: That's the really true part of it. But the - it was amazing to find out that, gee, the guys I used to play golf with didn't call anymore because they knew I wasn't available on Saturday to go play in their foursome...
STEVE: ...and that my real friends were guys like my gardener, the mailman. You know, those people who you just interact with on a normal daily basis seemed to understand and get it. And fortunately my family, who - as my kids would laugh at me as I exercise because I have to do this exercises where I was raising my thighs up real high and walking. And they called - in parallel bars - and they called it the chicken walk, you know?
STEVE: So, you know, you learn, I guess, from this, number one, that you are human, so you become very humble very quickly; and, number two, that there are an immense number of people out there who really want to help you.
CONAN: It's interesting.
CONAN: Excuse me. In the show, Mia and Auti, you guys are portrayed as best friends. I mean, this happened before the producers found you and - is that right?
SCHAIKEWITZ: That's correct, yeah.
ANGEL: We are best friends. We're sisters. We were - I've known Mia for seven years now. Angela, I've known for a little over 10. And Tiffany, we've known for four years. So we've been solid sisters for four years, all four of us. We've all connected on different levels, but mainly spiritually. You know, we came to understand that we both have the same wants, the same needs, the same drive to make a difference in this world. And we bonded together like that.
Mia and I dance together. We're on a dance team, and we press forward doing dance workshops, like I said, for the differently-abled that are all different type of diagnosis. And no matter what, we make sure that they're included, which is the best part about the show as well, is we're showing that we're including people, not just because we're paralyzed on - and spinal cord injuries. We love everybody.
CONAN: We're talking with Auti Angel and Mia Schaikewitz, two of the "Push Girls" on the Sundance Channel show that airs Monday nights at 10 o'clock. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Jessica(ph) is with us, Jessica calling from DeKalb in Illinois.
JESSICA: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
JESSICA: Yeah. I'm actually calling - I am not paralyzed, but my father is a quadriplegic with multiple sclerosis and has been paralyzed from the neck down for about the last 15 years. He was actually diagnosed when he was 19, so it's just pretty slowly progressing.
But he actually used to be a musician, and it's been very difficult for him to live with, you know, this disability and not being able to do what he loves. He did pass music on to me. He actually - after he was already a quadriplegic, he did teach me how to play guitar, which is kind of amazing. But...
SCHAIKEWITZ: That is amazing.
JESSICA: ...other than that, it's even difficult for him to listen to music at times because it's, you know, tough, you know?
CONAN: Too painful, yeah. It seems that it's robbed him of what he - strong sense of who he was.
JESSICA: Absolutely. And he actually - for many, many years, he was a big part of the music scene here in DeKalb. And he hosted Clyde's Open Stage at quite a few different places, I think he did it for about a little over 10 years, actually. And it was really important to him.
ANGEL: I would suggest trying to, being you're his daughter and doing what he loved, try to inspire him to follow his dreams still in a new way, even if it's like creating a program that helps quadriplegics play music on a computer...
SCHAIKEWITZ: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
ANGEL: ...or something. You know, it's like we always have to try to adapt to what our heart's desires are. And...
ANGEL: ...you know, I'm a dancer who lost the use of my legs. And people would think, OK, well, your dancing career is over. No. I had to reform this chair into my legs and adapt to new dancing and a new style, and bring out a new style. And I ended up dancing with Ludacris on the Vibe Music Awards in my wheelchair.
ANGEL: So I just, you know, encourage you to inspire him, being that you're his daughter, to still fulfill his dreams in a new creative way.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Mm-hmm. A lot of - going back to something that you did before and having this thought that you can't do it the same way sometimes keeps you from trying it. And I think when you try again and you think outside the box, there's definitely fulfilling ways to get that feeling back and to get that inspiration back. And I definitely think...
SCHAIKEWITZ: Yeah. I would definitely talk to him about, you know, thinking outside the box and coming up with ideas and brainstorming because the brain can take you, you know, to places you never thought you'd go and come up with...
JESSICA: Sure. Yeah. Well - and, you know, he actually - just recently was his birthday, and he got me and a few of his personal assistants together and actually taught us his songs. He put out an album in '93, and he taught us his songs. And we performed them at an open mic night that someone else runs at a coffee shop here. So (unintelligible)
SCHAIKEWITZ: That's beautiful.
ANGEL: That is beautiful.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Beautiful. And you never know, you might create a program that helps younger kids who become quadriplegic and he'll make history.
JESSICA: Yeah. Well, thank you so much.
CONAN: Jessica, thanks very much for the call. Thanks for the story.
ANGEL: Thank you.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Thank you. Good luck.
CONAN: And we want to thank Auti Angel and Mia Schaikewitz, two of the Push Girls, for being with us. They're, I guess, now ambassadors from their world to ours, and it turns out their world is very similar to ours. Thank you very much for being with us today.
SCHAIKEWITZ: Thank you for having us.
ANGEL: Thank you so much, yes. It's an honor and a pleasure.
CONAN: The Push Girls joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Up next: To many fans, boxer Manny Pacquiao was robbed last Saturday by the judges. NPR's Mike Pesca on bad calls in boxing and other sports. Is it time to take the human element out of scoring? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.