Picture this: it’s New York Fashion Week, an event surrounded by excitement and frenzied press, celebrities swarming in their droves to see and be seen at this highly prestigious fashion event. All eyes are on the catwalk as the first ever runway model in a wheelchair at New York Fashion Week strut her stuff.
My ‘walk’ down the runway at New York Fashion Week, a moment that was described by online magazine PolicyMic as; ”the greatest moment in Fashion Week history,” didn’t come quickly or easily.
This moment was a mixture of divinity and sheer hard work from the moment I moved to Manhattan in 2000. My aim has always been to promote a very real and strong message: that people with disabilities are sexy and empowered, and should therefore be valued consumers of the beauty and fashion industry. I have long been an advocate calling for recognition by society of the sexuality and eligibility of people with disabilities.
My move to Manhattan was spurred by two aims: to attend graduate school and to find love in a big, open-minded city. I entered a dating world that I knew was significantly more difficult to navigate if in a wheelchair. I never had a role model with a disability who I could look up to, one that promoted strong ideals around dating, sex, and feeling gorgeous.
So I decided to create one. I started to speak out on these rarely talked about subject. I wanted to be seen as a public voice, a strong, independent woman, representing disabled women.
The first big step on my quest was the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant, a competition that recognises accomplishment and achievement in women with physical disabilities. I was thrilled that there was actually something, anything, that applauded this. Could it even be glamorous to?
In order to enter I had to win the Ms. New York Wheelchair pageant first, which I happily did. I was starting to been seen as someone who could show that disabled women can be beautiful and stylish, just like any other woman. I could be a role model myself.
But it’s not all about the glamour; I wanted to show that disabled people can be intelligent as well. I have a PhD in clinical psychology, and so I like to mix this with popular culture to entice people to listen and to open their minds.
Since then I have opened a private therapy practice, addressing the issues around dating, sexuality, and romance for disabled clients. I differentiate between self-esteem and dateable self-esteem in my psychological practice. I have found that many people with disabilities have high overall self-esteem, but this is separate from the self-esteem involved in dating.
For example, most of my clients have successful careers and fantastic social lives. They have found satisfaction with their life, but in the area of dating and romance, their confidence is at very low levels .
Having had almost zero dating experience, and having been met by extraordinary amounts of rejection, many feel that romance is not possible – and the rest of society reinforces this attitude. But through my practice, I work with clients on building dateable self-esteem, as well as working on ways to make dating easier and facilitate romance.
I love my practice, and hope that I can help individual people. But I don’t want to stop there; I want to reach the masses, to change the way society views people with physical disabilities.
I hired a publicist right after winning the title of Ms. Wheelchair New York so that I could really push forward with changing the negative image that society has, and raise disabled people up from a marginalized status. I wanted to make it ‘cool’ to date someone in a wheelchair. Through the media, I continually strive to debunk the negative stereotype that people with disabilities are not sexy, not beautiful, and not glamorous.
Then, a very thrilling moment occurred that would help to catapult this aim into the spotlight. Fashion designer Carrie Hammer asked me to be a model in her runway show. She decided to use ‘role’ models instead of the traditional runway models, and was featuring entrepreneurs, CEOs, and other business executives.
The excitement coming through the telephone during that call was electric. When she said that she would have to check if the runway was accessible, we both said that we would build the ramp ourselves if we had to!
Being in hair and makeup on the day of the show I felt like every other model there and I thought; “this is how it should be.” After the audience was seated and the DJ was playing, I turned my wheelchair onto that runway and new that this would be the moment when I could change the world for the better for people with disabilities.
Empowered by that thought and the millions of camera flashes from the press and the applause, I worked that runway like it’s never been worked before.
Until now, people with physical disabilities were never recognised by the fashion industry as consumers or as models. I have flipped through fashion magazines since I was a teenager, and not once have I seen someone in a wheelchair. The subtle, or maybe not so subtle message here, is that we do not belong in this sexy, fashionable world. But that is simply just not true.
On that day on the catwalk, I carried everyone with me with a physical disability that deserves to be recognised as glamorous and sexy. That moment went viral, hopefully changing people’s minds.
Having my PhD. and being the first model in a wheelchair to ‘walk’ the runway at New York Fashion Week has turned out to be the killer combination that I use with all of my force to stomp out the negative, outdated societal views of people with disabilities. I can now promote a positive and glamorous image, and improve the ability of people to find fulfillment in the areas of dating and romance.
By Dr Danielle Sheypuk
Dr Danielle Sheypuk is available for therapy sessions, seminars, keynote speeches and other speaking opportunities. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website: www.daniellesheypuk.com.
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