Danielle Sheypuk: The Fashion Industry almost completely overlooks people with disabilities

Danielle Sheypuk - model, therapist of people with disabilities, clinical psychologist with  Ph.D. degree and TV personality. Her main purpose is to promote positive image of people with disabilities in the media. In her  professional work she is engaged in sexual therapy  of people who suffer because of social exclusion which arouses interest in the whole country. She also took part in New York Fashon Week. On Kulturalne Rozmowy website we are talking about preparations for this event and passion for life, sexuality and relationships. The is no taboo for her.

How did it happen that you became a model?

Danielle Sheypuk: I met Carrie Hammer approximately one year ago at a Women Who Care Luncheon for the United Cerebral Palsy Institute of New York. We were seated next to each other and we immediately hit it off. She was admiring my Louboutin booties and calling me the “Carrie Bradshaw” of people in wheelchairs. When she decided to use “role” models instead of the traditional runway model for her show, she immediately asked me to be in it. We were both so excited; we started screaming out loud on the telephone! 

Why did you want to be a model? 

I have always been interested in fashion and have always felt neglected by the Fashion Industry as a consumer with a disability. People with disabilities are never pitched to and never featured in fashion magazines. I want to change that and prove to the fashion industry that we are consumers too and care about the way we look. My other goal is to change the negative image of people with disabilities and cause society to look at us as chic, sexy, and glamorous. I felt that being a model could help me to make progress towards achieving these goals. 

What was your family and friends’ reaction to you becoming a model?

They are very supportive and keep saying that they have known for a long time that I would achieve great things. The bottom line is that I am trying to use my strengths, whether it is my intelligence and/or my beauty, to change the lives of people with disabilities for the better. 

What do you feel when people’s eyes are turned to you?

When I was going down that runway during New York Fashion Week, I felt electrified! I felt everyone’s eyes on me and the flashes of all of the press cameras and it empowered me. I thought that this was my time to show the world that people with physical disabilities are attractive, amazing, and fierce.

The first the Miss Wheelchair Poland contest was organized in 2013th. How did it look like in your country? 

I was so happy to see the Miss Wheelchair Poland pageant! I saw pictures and read a few articles and think you guys did an amazing job. I was very happy to see that even the Polish Prime Minister attended. I think other countries, including the USA, should look to your pageant as a good example of how it should be. You did an excellent job at portraying glamour, achievement, and beauty. Some of my family on my father’s side is from Poland, so I can say that I am very proud of my Polish roots. 

How the disabled are perceived in the USA? 

People with disabilities continue to be a very stigmatized population in the United States, especially in the area of dating, romance, and sexuality. Many negative stereotypes are still attributed to us, ie. We are asexual, not sexy, can’t have sex, are weak, dependent, helpless, won’t make good relationship partners, etc., and we are not featured in the mainstream media in any sort of glamorous, stylish way. These are the major areas that I am trying to address. It is 2014 and way past time for change.
Have you ever been reluctant to start a career as a model? 

No! When I believe in something, I make it happen. I am a very driven, motivated, passionate person. I strongly believe that society needs to see people with disabilities as desirable, beautiful people, who need to be included in all areas of our society for the sake of our general well-being and our mental health. I won’t stop until I make this happen! 

How would you define the American mentality when it comes to perceiving the disabled?  

The United States has come a long way in terms of their acceptance and integration of people with physical disabilities. Our needs regarding accessibility and education are pretty vigorously addressed. But, people with disabilities continue to have a very negative image when it comes to dating, sex, romance, and fashion. We have not been integrated into these arenas and, of course these topics apply to people with disabilities. Are we not human? It is part of human nature, disabled or not, to want to engage in an intimate relationship and to care about the way we look. It remains difficult for people with disabilities to have romantic/sexual relationships and, it is believed that the largest obstacle is society’s negative perceptions. The fashion industry almost completely overlooks people with disabilities in terms of being consumers and in terms of defining beauty.
How would you define the term “disability”?
I define “disability” as “differently abled”. We may not be able to do some activity or function the way that the majority of society can, but we just have to figure out another way to do it. So, we may have to go a different path but the end result is the same, and that is the ability to lead a healthy, fulfilling life. As a psychologist, I often label this as strategy and help clients to come up with a strategy that works for them and helps them to meet their goals. Strategy can be used in the area of dating, romance, and sexuality. I constantly stand by the concept that I do not care how severe one’s disability is, dating, romance, and sex are possible with a little strategy.  

How did it happen that you received an invitation to the New York Fashion Week?  

When designer Carrie Hammer decided to use “Role” models instead of the typical runway model, she thought I would be perfect for the job. 

How do you feel on the runway or while performing on TV?  

I always feel a little nervous because I always strive to do a good job, but I enjoy being in front of the camera and being in the spotlight. It is something that feels very natural to me and I feel like I can use this as a way to reach many people. The only way that we will change these negative stereotypes and the negative way society regards people with disabilities is to reach out on a very large level and that involves major media like television, radio, fashion magazines, and fashion shows.

Have you noticed any differences between you as a wheelchair model in comparison to other models?  

I feel that self-confidence is relative and I feel just as self-confident as all of the other models. One difference that I noticed during the rehearsal for the show is that I needed to work on how I would model the clothing while sitting in my wheelchairs.

What was the reception of spectators and the mass media to you?  

It was so warm and welcoming! All of the guests at the show described a “great vibe” when leaving and feeling good about themselves.  

What does your life look like in NY as a disabled person?  

Contrary to what most people assume, New York City is actually an easy place for me to live. The fact that all public transportation (aside from some subway stations) is accessible is a huge plus. I do not drive, so I enjoy the independence that this brings. 

You are a media personality. Don’t you think that you are a very important person for many people especially women with disabilities?  

Yes, I think that I have a lot to offer people with disabilities. I try to live my life to the fullest despite my disability and this is so important for people to see and know it is possible for them too.  

What is your message for millions of disabled people who admire you, and dream about life similar to yours?  

Work hard and set your goals just a little bit higher then you normally would. It is good to push yourself a little and go beyond your comfort zone. I believe that it facilitates growth as a person.  

What do you think about showing disability in the media?  

I think it is extremely important to show people with disabilities in the media. It is the only way that we are going to normalize having a disability and dispel all of the negative stereotypes and stigmas.  

Have you noticed any tendencies to show disabilities in the American media?  

There have been previous tendencies to portray people with disabilities as sad, pathetic, and sick. That image is recently starting to change especially since the Sundance reality show, The Push Girls, the Diesel Advertisement with a disabled model, and now with Carrie Hammer featuring a disabled runway model (me!).
What are you more afraid of: criticism or praise of your achievements as a disabled person?   

I am not afraid of either. I welcome both, will grow from both, and will use my growth to further empower people with disabilities.  

Apart from being a model you are a therapist. Could you tell me something more about this profession?
I am a licensed clinical psychologist. I have my Ph.D. from The New School for Social Research in Manhattan. I treat the spectrum of mental health issues from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder. My specialty lies in the area of dating, romance, and sexuality for people with physical disabilities. I have started a private therapy practice where I conduct therapy sessions via Skype. I engineered it that way to make it easier for people with disabilities to attend therapy.
You as a therapist raise a very controversial question (sexual therapy of disabled people). Could you tell me how the society reacts to your work?
I feel that society, especially the disabled community, have welcomed the discussion of sex and dating for people with disabilities with open arms. People with disabilities want to talk about it because it is such a neglected and ignored topic that there is usually no one to turn to for advice or to look to as a role model. Society, in general, wants to hear about it because they are not exposed to the topic and want to learn more. 

Why have you chosen this area of therapy? 

It is an area that is the most neglected and needs the most attention. It is our human nature to be interested in dating and intimacy, regardless of disability, and finding fulfillment in these areas is crucial to our psychological well-being.
What was the reaction of the disabled community to the film "Sessions"?  

I loved the movie and thought it did a great job in beginning to open the eyes of American society to the very normal sexual nature of people with physical disabilities.
What is the demand among the disabled to take part in sexual therapy? 

There is great demand because people with disabilities really have no one to turn to for advice regarding this topic or to look to as a role model. Psychologists with disabilities are rare and many disabled clients prefer to work with a psychologist/therapist who also has a disability.
You are an online therapist. Do you think that a lack of face to face contact plays a significant role in treating any disorders?
I treat clients both in-person and online. I think a successful, working therapeutic alliance can be formed in both scenarios. Both scenarios equally have their plus and minuses.

You can also read this interview in Polish version here


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