During last Monday's debut episode of Sundance Channel's "Push Girls," Atlanta native Mia Schaikewitz is working out with her friend Tiphany Adams, their upper torso muscles glistening with sweat as they pull weights.
"I don't think people have seen sexy in a wheelchair," Schaikewitz says over the scene. "So they can't fathom it. Being yourself is really sexy. Confidence is a turn-on."
In many ways, that summarizes what "Push Girls" is about. While people with paralysis face many obstacles, the four women in this cable TV series figure out ways to face, transcend and defeat their roadblocks. Being attractive, articulate and intelligent makes them perfect reality show fodder to boot.
(The first 30-minute episode of the series is available for free on Hulu.com. Sundance is airing all 14 episodes through August.)
Unlike TV's "Real Housewives" series or "Jersey Shore," the "Push Girls" women were all close friends before the show started, not cast members cobbled together to generate drama. "It's not just about individual lives and the fact we're in wheelchairs, but what a strong female bond we have," said Schaikewitz, a project manager at a Los Angeles graphic design and branding firm.
Though Schaikewitz considers herself a private person, she opens up her daily life to viewers. For instance, she allows cameras into her bathroom, showing her getting into a shower without assistance. "I want people to know what my life is like. I decided not to be shy about it. We're doing something bigger than a show."
Schaikewitz, 33, suffered an unusual spinal cord rupture at age 15 that, within hours, paralyzed her from the waist down. The show's other three women were in car accidents, the most common cause of paralysis.
There are about 12,000 new spinal cord injury patients per year, an estimated 270,000 total nationwide, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center in Birmingham. Research shows 80 percent are men.
In 2005, men with spinal cord injuries were given a big spotlight in the documentary "Murderball," where macho paraplegic guys played rugby in "Mad Max"-style wheelchairs. Since 2009, Fox's "Glee" has featured a teenage boy in a wheelchair.