Psychologist on being Ms. Wheelchair New York with PhD: 'This is a powerful combo'

Accessible Beauty is a miniseries of profiles that Yahoo Lifestyle will run the week of Dec. 3 in order to continue the spirit of that date’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, founded by the United Nations. That story focused on six empowering individuals, and today we highlight one of them, Danielle Sheypuk, 39, a psychologist, sexpert, and Miss Wheelchair 2012, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

Biggest misconception about people with disabilities: The fact that we are not considered sexual people. Of all the minority groups, we’re left behind when it comes to dating, sex, and relationships. We’re humans, and humans want to find a mate, so we’re no different from anyone else, but I realize it’s almost universal for people with disabilities, because of all the stereotypes that still surround us in that area — that we’re asexual, physically not attractive, not able to have sex, won’t make good romantic partners, and are not masculine or feminine enough. If I put a profile up on Tinder or Match, it’s most likely not going to get as much action as someone without a disability. And it’s completely unfair.

On winning Ms. Wheelchair New York: One night in 2012, my friend called me and said, “I found something that’s perfect for you; it’s a Ms. Wheelchair New York pageant, and it focuses on academics and also glamour,” and the fact that glamour and disability were in the same sentence? I was so excited about that. I thought, let me win that title, because it will be perfect with the PhD because it integrates pop culture, and people are into that. [Sometime after], I was at a doctor’s office with a new doctor, who was asking about me. I said, “I’m getting my PhD in clinical psychology,” and at the end I was like, “Oh, I forgot, I’m also Ms. Wheelchair New York this year,” and he’s like, “Oh my God! Let me get the nurse; she’ll want to meet you!” In my mind, I was like, OK, this is a powerful combo.

On why, in a 2015 TEDx Talk, she differentiates between self-esteem and “datable” self-esteem: Because as someone with a disability, we often have areas of high self-esteem in our life — our careers, our social lives, great families, and a lot of friends. But when it comes to our dating and sex life, it’s like our self-esteem is totally in the gutter. So I wanted to take the message up a notch. I want to talk about dating — and not that we just like shopping, but that we shop at Barneys, we shop at Bloomingdale’s, and that we like to wear expensive clothes and be in Vogue. And I love using my own self and my own body as, like, a message to push it forward. Like, “Oh, she’s wearing high heels — I want to wear high heels!” After [I was in a] runway show, I got a lot of messages and tweets about, “Oh, after my accident I stopped wearing high heels— thanks for letting me know that I could still do it.”

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