They’re all talented, glamorous, intelligent and attractive Los Angeles women – but this group of reality stars has something else in common: They’re all in wheelchairs.
Season two of Sundance Channel’s docu-series “Push Girls” premieres Monday, having drawn critical acclaim last year for denouncing society’s perception of life as a paraplegic or quadriplegic, chronicling the ups and downs, romances, heartbreaks and daily difficulties faced by four friends in wheelchairs.
The cast is comprised of the show’s creator, former model and actress Angela Rockwood, who was left a quadriplegic after a car accident in 2001, her roommate Tiphany Adams – the only survivor in a high school car accident, hip hop dancer Auti Angel who dated rapper LL Cool J in the early 90’s shortly before a car accident that changed her life forever, and former competitive swimmer Mia Schaikewitz, who was instantly paralyzed due to a blood vessel rupture in her spinal cord.
“Creating ‘Push Girls’ was my calling,” Rockwood told FOX 411’S Pop Tarts column. “I became paralyzed 12 years ago, and the moment I woke up in the hospital and opened my eyes the first thought that came into my head was ‘I’m alive.’ The second thought was ‘I’m alive and breathing on my own.’ I was blessed.”
Rockwood, who separated from “21 Jump Street” star Dustin Nguyen in 2011, said the show intends to send an optimistic message to viewers.
“It’s about doing your best and living life to the fullest no matter what,” she said. “There’s so much stuff out there that isn’t positive on TV, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do something negative. If you put out positive messages, you can be a positive change in the world.”
The unique series has attracted support from the disabled community. For instance Peter Wilderotter, president and CEO of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation called it “not only good TV, but important TV.”
Still, others have been a little less enthusiastic.
Controversy swirled through social media last season because the show did not depict any women with genetic or neurological conditions. One social media users complained “not all women in wheelchairs are dirty, wear sweatpants and play video games.” Others questioned whether “Push Girls,” which was brought to life by TLC’s “Little People, Big World” producer Gay Rosenthal, was exploiting those with a disability for entertainment value.
But Angel, who stars in the show, said that is not the case.
“For people who say it’s exploiting, it is just their fear of the perception. They don’t understand it just yet because they never really experienced a person with a disability so they aren’t sure how to embrace it. I would ask them to be more open, it is not exploiting our lives. It is giving you a view into a life that happens to be women in wheelchairs,” she explained. “We also have relatable stories, Angela going through her divorce, me going through counseling with my husband. You don’t have to have a disability to watch. It’s sharing of the human experience.”
Rockwood also pointed out that, unlike the stars of many other reality shows, this group of women were friends long before the cameras started rolling. She added that some of her other disabled friends may make appearances in the show’s later seasons.
“I have friends who were born [with genetic or neurological problems] but we will have to see what happens in the third or fourth season of the show. You will see a lot more individuals that are part of our lives, it is not all about the wheelchair,” she insisted. “The majority of America doesn’t understand what a quadriplegic is… When I was first injured I lived in sweats and wore sneakers and gained lots of weight and got lazy. After a couple of years I thought ‘I can’t do this.’ I lost 65 pounds, cleaned up my act. If you watch the show you’ll see us in sweats. It is just that sloppy wheelchair stereotype we are trying to break.”
Paul J. Tobin President and CEO of United Spinal Association, told us that while “Push Girls” shows only some of the trials and tribulations its stars endure, it is helping to break some stereotypes associated with spinal cord injuries.
“Through personal drive, access to resources and reasonable accommodations, people with significant disabilities can pursue and achieve almost any goal,” he continued.
Carol Glazer, President of the National Organization on Disability, noted that the fact that there is a television show documenting the life experiences of four women in wheelchairs represents progress in itself. Still, she said many people in wheelchairs likely have drastically different experiences than the subjects of the show.
“To call ‘Push Girls’ a reality show, however, is a misnomer,” she said. “We certainly applaud these women for living their lives to the fullest, and the Sundance Channel for bringing their story to a mass audience, but just want to acknowledge that the realities are always more complex than what you see on TV.”
Season two of “Push Girls” debuts on the Sundance Channel Monday June 3.
Danielle Jones-Wesley contributed to this report