Mia Schaikewitz parked her shiny black Mitsubishi Eclipse in front of her graphic design office in Pasadena, looking glamorous in her black leather jacket and purple eye shadow with matching fingernail polish. Then she opened her car door, lifted out a wheelchair and assembled it in 20 seconds flat. The chair was sporty, like her car, with a leopard-patterned seat that matched her purse. “I’ve got another chair at home that’s red and silver — it all depends on my mood and what I want to wear — it’s almost like an accessory,” she said, breezily.
“When I first got paralyzed, I used to count the seconds it took me to get into the car,” she said while hauling herself up a ramp with what looked like Herculean strength. “It was fun to see how many seconds I could shave off.”
The 34-year-old graphic designer is one of four women — all paralyzed from the waist or neck down — profiled on the Sundance Channel’s new documentary series, “Push Girls,” created by producer Gay Rosenthal (“Ruby”) and premiering this week. Schaikewitz, who is Jewish, has used a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in her spinal cord when she was 15; her good friends Angela Rockwood, 37, Auti Angel, 42, and Tiphany Adams, 29, were all paralyzed in car accidents more than 10 years ago.
In a trend of reality television that includes the sensationalist “Housewives” franchises, “Push Girls” stands out for its non-sensational depiction of women who can’t walk but are also gorgeous, athletic and ambitious. Rockwood is hoping to jump-start her former modeling career; Angel — reportedly the first professional hip-hop dancer to continue her professional career in a wheelchair — is trying to have a baby with her husband of five years; Adams is exploring a lesbian relationship after a bad breakup; and Schaikewitz is grappling with whether to stay with her boyfriend while reassessing her relationship with her mother and tackling competitive swimming for the first time since high school.
She agreed to participate in “Push Girls,” she said, “because I want to show people areas where they think we get stuck, and we don’t. But I also want to reveal the unsentimental realities of our lives, without being preachy. It’s answering all the questions people might be afraid to ask us: How do we go grocery shopping, go to the bathroom, go to clubs or the gym?”
In the premiere episode, we first see Schaikewitz as she is snuggling in bed with her boyfriend; the camera follows her as she nimbly transfers from her chair into the bathtub, where she showers sitting down with her knees hugged tightly to her chest. “The question people most ask is whether we can have sex, and the answer is definitely yes,” Schaikewitz told me. “And most people haven’t seen ‘sexy’ in a wheelchair, which is why they can’t fathom it.”
Schaikewitz attended a Jewish day school in Atlanta, where her father became Modern Orthodox after her parents divorced when she was 3. She still remembers her bat mitzvah speech at his synagogue, where she discussed Rabbi Akiva’s parable about how water can carve stone. It was a lesson in persistence Schaikewitz said she drew upon after she became paralyzed during her freshman year in high school.
The date was Oct. 27, 1993, when Schaikewitz, then a rising star on her school’s swim team, developed a pain in her side so sharp that it awakened her from sleep that night. By the time doctors took an MRI the next morning, she could no longer move her legs. The news was beyond unsettling: A defect in her circulatory system had caused a stroke in her spine, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
“At first I was devastated; I thought my life was over,” she said. “I even wrote in my journal, ‘I’ll never go out in public again,’ and I cried for two weeks straight. But that was the best part of it — the darkest part, but also the catalyst for me to realize that’s not a way to live.” She was inspired when the doctors reassured her that she could live independently, have children and participate in adaptive sports.
“We do learn to be reborn again,” she said of her three months in a rehabilitation hospital. “From sitting up in bed to getting dressed, you learn everything over again, and it seems daunting at first. But as you continue taking baby steps, you start to feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Her confidence grew as she was welcomed back at high school, then went on to become the first person in a wheelchair to join a sorority at the University of Florida, and, for a time, became religiously observant when a rabbi who shared her views about disability inspired her. “It has a lot to do with still having choices and control over your life,” said Schaikewitz, who still attends synagogue and Jewish events in Los Angeles, where she has lived for the past dozen years.
The day she graduated from college, Schaikewitz loaded her wheelchair in the back seat of a friend’s Saturn and drove out to Los Angeles to start her career in media production; she’s now a project manager for a graphic design firm. She met Rockwood — who was paralyzed on her way to a fitting for her wedding dress — when she enrolled in an acting class that met at the model’s Hollywood home. “Angela is a quadriplegic, but she still does everything she can do and lives life to the fullest,” Schaikewitz said of their connection.
It was Rockwood who invited Schaikewitz to participate in “Push Girls”; Schaikewitz signed on, even though she describes herself as “an intensely private person,” partly to shatter stereotypes about the disabled. “People think we can only date people in wheelchairs, that we’re lucky to get any guy, that we can’t be picky,” she said by way of example. On the show, she says she loves her freedom so much that she doesn’t want to settle down with just anyone, as well as frankly describing her preference for able-bodied men who can keep up with her.
Schaikewitz also decides on camera to swim again for the first time in 17 years; while she had previously participated in numerous adaptive sports, swimming proved too emotionally difficult, reminding her of the time she lost use of her legs. But her first trip to the pool proves triumphant. “I was just finally ready to do it,” she said. “It was time to just close the book, so to speak.”
“Push Girls” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel.