Angela Rockwood, Mia Schaikewitz, Auti Angel and Tiphany Adams have each spent most of their adult lives in wheelchairs. And long before there were any cameras around, each had become an ambassador for people with disabilities, whether through charity work or by chatting with fellow gym-goers who had questions about their physical capacities.
“They start asking, ‘What happened?’ We start sharing our story, and then it becomes this inspiring moment,” says Rockwood, a former model who was injured in a car accident the week before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “Regardless if we had the TV show or not, this is something we were already doing.”
The four women have been close friends in Los Angeles for years. Each is strikingly beautiful, stylish and dynamic. And interesting, with or without the disability. In the first episode, which aired June 4 on the Sundance Channel, the show deals directly with the logistics of the women’s lives — how they drive and bathe, whether they can exercise or have sex. (Yes, Tiphany explains with an eye roll, “lots and lots of sex.”)
But the narrative quickly becomes about the women, not their disabilities. At 42, Angel is attempting to have a baby with her husband. Schaikewitz, 34, is figuring out her relationship with a boyfriend who doesn’t want children. Adams, 29, is trying to find a career that suits her while dating both men and women. Rockwood, 37, has recently separated from her husband and is wading back into the modeling world.
To Rockwood, it seemed as if the universe conspired to create the show. While cheering on a friend who was auditioning for “American Gladiator,” she met the show’s producer, David Hurwitz. A year later, she found his card while cleaning out her closet with a friend who was encouraging her to find a bigger platform for her message. Rockwood decided to e-mail Hurwitz the next day, but before she had a chance, he sent her a Facebook message.
Hurwitz introduced Rockwood to Gay Rosenthal, executive producer of “Little People, Big World” and “Ruby.” Soon they all met for brunch. “Immediately when we met her we all knew that we were in good hands,” Auti said during a recent visit the four women made to the District. “She was going to embrace our vision. We wanted to be able to reach out to the masses and tell people, ‘No matter what obstacle comes your way, it’s always overcome-able.’ ”
Schaikewitz, the only one of the four who was not injured in a car accident, had the most reservations about being featured in a reality series. She was rendered paralyzed at 15 by an arteriovenous malformation that burst in her spinal chord. She works as a graphic designer, and while she’s an outspoken advocate for disability rights, she is deeply protective of her private life.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, not only are my friends going to watch this, but the world.’ It was daunting for me,” recalls Schaikewitz, shiny black hair falling over dramatic blue earrings. “But I realized this was something I needed to sacrifice to get this message out.”
The only other worry for the women was whether they’d live up to the expectations of disabled viewers. “Yes, we are disabled, but we can’t represent the disabled community as a whole because we’re living our lives,” Auti says. “I can only represent myself.”
In October, film crews began tailing the women each Thursday through Sunday. And although it sometimes seems as if the women are saving up particularly intriguing moments of their lives for the cameras, they swear none of the shows are scripted or rehearsed. (We get a close-up when Schaikewitz and her boyfriend break up, and we’re there when Adams and a woman she’s seeing share a kiss on the dance floor.)
A week before it aired, the women gathered at Rockwood’s house to watch the first of 14 episodes. They huddled on the couch, wondering how their lives could be condensed into 22 minutes. As the show ended, Angel fell into Rockwood’s lap, crying.
“I bawled because I’ve waited for this platform for 20 years. I’ve always wanted to reach out to the masses on a larger scale and inspire,” says Angel, a hip-hop dancer who used to tour with LL Cool J. “They’re capturing our lives gracefully and respectfully — even if we do cuss on occasion.”
The women say they hope the show will encourage other disabled people, especially those who are newly injured and still grappling with life in a wheelchair. And they hope it will open the eyes of able-bodied viewers. The show’s title has a double meaning — suggesting not just how they get around, but how much they’ve pushed for access, rights and understanding.
It wasn’t long after Schaikewitz’s paralysis that she accepted the changes to her body. But she’s still waiting for everyone else to catch up. “I was like, ‘Cool. I’m cool with it.’ And then I would go out and people would come up and be like, ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you.’ Or, ‘Don’t worry, they’re going to come up with a cure one day so you can walk.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just want a cure for ignorance!’ ” she says.
“Because there is a cure — it’s awareness.”
airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel