“I don’t consider myself a fashion model,” explains, Dr. Danielle Sheypuk. “I just use my body through modeling to show people with disabilities that they can do it too and that we’re cool.”
Danielle’s mission is to make disabilities chic, sexy, and cool. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Danielle works at this both on a micro and macro level. “The PhD definitely helps.” she says. “People listen to me because I’m educated.” And while she’s careful to stress that foremost, she’s a clinical psychologist, she’s also a model-beauty-queen-consultant-activist. Each hat plays a role in her mission, which can be summed up by the excellent hashtag she coined: #disabilityisthenewblack.
“My mission is inherently a part of me. What I’m doing just feels really right and intrinsically fulfilling and like it’s what I’m meant to do,” says the undeniably glamorous doctor, clad in a black pinstripe suit with fur-topped shiny loafers. Her fashion sense is more obvious than her wheelchair.
Her fashion sense is more obvious than her wheelchair.
Danielle always loved putting outfits together and shopping. But now, it’s not just for fun. Looking great in public is important to Danielle because “a lot of people have still never seen someone in a wheelchair, so I want the imprint in their mind to veer as far away from the stereotypes of frumpiness as possible.”
Then she laughs and says, “I mean it’s not hard, I do it on the daily anyway.”
Danielle is a super in-demand shrink, working with clients from all over the country. Though she works with disabled and non-disabled patients alike, she designed her practice to be Skype-accessible, to make it easier for those with disabilities to come to sessions. She treats all types of issues–including situational anxiety, work stress, bipolar disorder and depression–but her specialty is in dating, sexuality, and relationships.
Growing up, Danielle realized there was a discrepancy: she felt normal but never got asked on dates through high school and college. “A lot of things about disabilities are heavily advocated for, but when it comes to sex and dating, it’s still taboo,” she says. She had only had one incident ever in which someone talked to her about dating and they gave her terrible advice.
A lot of things about disabilities are heavily advocated for, but when it comes to sex and dating, it’s still taboo.
It was during high school. There had been an online chat room that for one night only was going to discuss disability and dating. She waited all day, super anxious and excited for the chat. When the time came, she expressed her difficulty finding a boyfriend, and the group leader’s advice was simply that it was going to take a really long time to find someone. “That was really awful advice,” says Danielle. “It was demoralizing.”
She left her home in Scranton, Pennsylvania–that’s the town where The Office takes place–for New York City. Excited and hopeful, it was there she got her PhD from the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. A huge fan of the show Sex and the City, she had what she called “big Sex-and-the-City-dreams” of finding love. Upon arrival, she set up a Match.com profile, but still found it was more difficult to date than it was for her more able-bodied peers.
That was when Danielle came to a critical realization: there was no Carrie Bradshaw writing about dating with a disability. So she decided to assume the role. She published a few pieces, and the topic eventually turned into the focus of her practice.
Shortly after, while still in grad school in early 2012, a friend told her about the Ms. Wheelchair New York pageant. It was the first time she had heard about anything that combined ‘glamor’ with ‘wheelchair. She knew if she could win, it would be a platform for her to start talking about her topic publicly. “We are a pop culture culture,” she says. So she entered, and she won.
She once told a doctor that she was completing her PhD and received little reaction until she told him she was Ms. Wheelchair New York at which he totally freaked out, and brought nurses in to get autographs. She laughs about the absurdity of this, but she’s fully using it to her advantage. While she might be a powerhouse mind, she doesn’t downplay the importance of glamour.
She hired a publicist. “I took it and ran,” she says. She knows the combination of having a PhD and also being a beauty queen is interesting to people. “That’s the idea behind my brand. I want to change the image of people with disabilities into an image that’s cool and glamorous and chic,” she says. “It’s already common for us to be pushed toward academic achievement with the underlying message ‘ok, you’re not going to get married, your body isn’t working. So use your brain.’” But she wants to balance this out. She wants the world to see that people with disabilities are also sexy and dateable and great romantic partners.
I want to change the image of people with disabilities into an image that’s cool and glamorous and chic.
In 2013, she met the fashion designer Carrie Hammer at a benefit. They decided to have Danielle model in her New York Fashion Week show. The story went viral. Danielle and Carey hadn’t realized they were making history: Danielle was the first model in a wheelchair ever to grace the Fashion Week stage. Next thing she knew she was doing the morning show circuit, preaching her gospel of glamour on a macro level.
“Seeing me as a model wearing fashion, looking great is inspiring,” she says, then self corrects, “Actually I hate the word inspiring.” Above inspired, she just wants people with disabilities to feel integrated. “We’re often put in the ‘inspirational’ role and it’s just cliché! It’s played out. It goes back to the telethon days where we were used to raise money because ‘oh wow, my life is hard but Danielle is an inspiration, look what she goes through!’ It’s old! We have great lives. Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean your life sucks.”
Far from it. In fact, in her psychology practice, she works on something she calls “dateable self-esteem” because, she says, in general people with disabilities often have high self-esteem with their families, friends, and careers, but not when it comes to dating. She explains that self-doubt stems from thoughts like “who’s going to accept all my physical problems?” and “Who’s going to desire me sexually when my body is so different from the norm?” She gets it. Her practice with her clients is largely informed by her own dating experiences.
Her younger sister, an anesthesiologist in the Air Force, does not have a disability but is also single. They commiserate about dating.
“A lot of dating problems are universal,” she explains. “It’s hard no matter what to find a quality man, to find chemistry, and for some reason, to find a guy with a job—even in New York City!” It’s hard, but it’s not only about the disability. “I may be single because I’m disabled, or I may be single because I’m an educated woman with a career,” she says, “but there are millions of couples where one or both partners have a disability and they have gotten married, given birth, and have great families. It’s all possible.” That’s what her clinical practice works to reaffirm on a micro, person-by-person basis.
On an industry-wide basis, Danielle is changing the way designers think about product design. In a recent talk she gave at Parsons School of Design, she discussed disability and the concept of universal design. “They brought me in because the fashion market is saturated with designers who want to make beautiful luxurious clothes. But I say, do something different, look at the populations that aren’t yet designed for.” She’s not a proponent of clothes and products specially designed for people with disabilities, but rather for creating design solutions that are more universally viable. Because, she points out, a solution for one is often a solution for many.
For example, she recently spoke to a large corporation that produces paper-based consumer products. She specifically addressed their fem-care product line and possible designs that would work better for women in wheelchairs. Turns out the design solutions that she offered would also be a better for women with arthritis, one arm, or even a broken arm. She acknowledges that Nordstrom does use some women in wheelchairs in their advertising, but points out that disabled people are a $220 billion-dollar industry and are still virtually ignored. If Danielle has her way, they won’t be for much longer.
Between modeling, speaking, and consulting gigs, Danielle’s still somehow accepting new clients. Get in touch on her website.