An Interview: The First Woman in a Wheelchair to Grace The Runways of NYC Fashion Week
Crowned in 2012 as "Ms. Wheelchair of New York City", Dr. Danielle Sheypuk was the first person to travel down the runway in a wheelchair during the recent New York City Fashion Week.
I recently interviewed this accomplished young woman who is busy setting the world on fire, illustrating how someone in a wheelchair can be smart, sexy and very “dateable.”
A media commentator, disability rights advocate, fashion model and licensed clinical psychologist, Danielle is leaving tongues wagging while also changing how we view disability.
Wheelchair dependent since childhood, Danielle has special insights into the challenges facing the disabled community, particularly in the area of mental, emotional and interpersonal well-being.
CC: Thank you for letting me interview you, Danielle. Let’s start off by having you tell me a little bit about yourself.
DS: Sure, my pleasure. I have a day job at a clinic. I am a psychologist and work there with patients who have a low socioeconomic status with more severe mental issues. I work really hard, and I’m tired all the time.
CC: Life in a wheelchair must be very difficult and fatiguing. Daily tasks able-bodied people take for granted are more difficult for you. I applaud for what you are doing with your life despite disability.
DS: I want to work to change the image people have of someone with a disability. I’m really driven by a passion to try and change it, especially in the area of dating and romance. The bare bones is that it will improve the quality of our lives by giving it more attention. I live a double life. During the day I work with people who are arrested or dealing with drug abuse. At night I’m going to Fashion Week parties, galas and fundraisers.
CC: What you are doing is so powerful and empowering. You’re not only trying to redefine disability, but you’re also redefining life in a wheelchair, allowing people to learn what that feels like; teaching them that everyone is the same.
DS: Yes, that’s exactly right. Education and awareness, and the awareness part is huge. It’s not just about helping with people with disabilities. I do that at night in my private practice when I see clients over Skype. I engineered it that way to make it easier for people with disabilities to get to therapy. That way they don’t have to leave their homes, they won’t have to worry about attendants getting transportation in the snow. I am helping them with any kind of psychologist issues, such as depression or anxiety, but also specifically in the area of dating, romance and sex. Right now it’s just not cool to date someone in a wheelchair.
CC: Your journey to get to that was becoming Ms. Wheelchair, correct?
DS: My good friend, who is also a psychologist, saw the contest advertised on the Internet. It is a pageant, but it’s also a contest based on achievement and accomplishment. So my friend thought of me.
For a long I’ve been interested in the area of dating and sex because, growing up, it was completely ignored. When I moved to New York for Graduate School and started dating, I had no one to talk to about it. I grew up with the mindset it would be hard to find some romance. Who would be interested in me? It gets drilled into you.
When my friend approached me about entering the pageant, I thought I’d try to win to help open doors with the help of major media outlets. It has a pop culture feel to it, and I could use the leverage to make some real changes. The pageant combined with my PhD makes it an interesting conversation, and causes people to listen.
CC: So you’re drawing attention to it, that you’re beautiful, intelligent, able and no different than anyone else.
DS: Yes, it shows people they can go all the way with their education.
CC: When you talk about sexuality with a client who has a disability, what do you say?
DS: It’s a two-part process. First we work with cognitive changes; their mindset, emotions and self-esteem. That is one piece. How they grew up, what they grew up thinking, how they think of themselves now. It’s like a psychotherapy approach. Psychodynamics mixed with cognitive behavioral therapy.
The second part is tips. I don’t simply hand them to them. I want them to work toward this on their own. It takes time to work with client to help explore better options, for example how do they do something if they are spastic. It gets very specific depending on their case. If they have an attendant sex can become difficult.
CC: What do you think the best piece of advice you’ve given to someone who doesn’t feel datable, sexy or social?
DS: Know that they can have a fulfilling sexual dating life no matter what their disability is, and no matter how severe. I’ve seen people with severe disabilities give birth. I work to unite our community because we know these issues exist, but they are not talked about cohesively.
CC: How can someone feel better about themselves with the ongoing necessity of taking care of their physical needs, such as taking medications, but want to become more social?
DS: When you have a lot on your plate taking care of yourself, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by thoughts that they need a social life or they don’t have friends. They have negative thoughts, with vague goals, and begin to feel overwhelmed and start to shut down. So I suggest breaking their goals into smaller ones. If they do one thing a day, such as trying to establish a bigger social circle, they can go online and use social media, find other online tools, talk to people, and push themselves to make one little effort that leads to something else.
It’s important to know that if they feel depressed, are constantly crying or begin to have feelings of self-destruction, they need to immediately seek medical attention.
CC: Tell us a little about The Raw Beauty Project.
DS: Yes, that’s a project sponsored by The Christopher Reeve Foundation, and they did an exhibit in Miami. They took a small group of models who were women with all different disabilities, trying to change the image of people with disabilities into something more sexual, more normalizing. The project is creating awareness.
CC: Would you like to add anything else?
DS: People can contact me at my website, http://daniellesheypuk.com/ or my email Sheypuk@hotmail.com. If they are interested in therapy or what I am doing they can take a look at my site.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. We want to check in. How are you feeling?