File: Elephant Talk_Danielle Sheypuk_Final
Welcome to season two of Elephant Talk! As our country feels more divided than ever and we seek to find our commonalities, I wanted to start this season off with a conversation that gets to the heart of what we have in common as humans…and, that is our deep desire for love and connection.
Today, we bring you an important conversation I had with Dr. Danielle Sheypuk. Dr. Sheypuk is widely regarded as a “sexpert” and leading commentator on issues confronting the disabled population. She has established a successful and innovative private therapy practice employing Skype-based treatment, which she engineered specifically to make it easier for people with disabilities to attend sessions.
Using her personal story, which you’ll hear shortly, she crusades against the stereotypes and stigmas surrounding people with disabilities. Dr. Sheypuk’s approach to life and love as an urban-dwelling professional has been favorably compared to an episode of “Sex and the City.”
“So it can be very difficult when someone is with their able-bodied friends and they’re talking like, ‘Oh, when was your first kiss? How was that? Did you ever make out with someone?’ Sometimes my clients will feel shame. They’re not part of that. It hasn’t happened for them. That’s really upsetting and that’s what I want to change.”
Dr. Sheypuk is boldly going where few others have gone, to raise awareness about the dating lives of men and women with disabilities.
MY NAME IS ANDY HORNING, AND THIS IS ELEPHANT TALK. IT’S ABOUT ALL THINGS RELATIONSHIP – THE SOULFUL, THE SILLY AND THE SEXY.
|Danielle||A new treatment that’s been approved for people who have Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which is the disability that I was born with and diagnosed with at age approximately three. So I’ve met all the developmental milestones except when it was time to get up and walk. You know I’d be on my knee and put my foot up to stand up and it never quite happened. So what the disability is it’s a deficiency in proteins. So our bodies aren’t producing as much proteins as your body for example because there’s an error in our genetic code.
For example, a sentence, I’m going to go shopping later today because it’s sunny. My genetic code is I’m going to go later today because it’s sunny. So this drug is a lumbar injection into the spinal cord and it injects the word shopping into our code, which will allow our bodies to produce more proteins. So in the clinical trials, it really caused… it’s been showing great improvement in children, like they’ve been meeting all the developmental milestones when some of the babies might not have even been able to sit up. So it’s really exciting.
|AH||Does that mean that at some point you might have the gift of walking or you might be able to stand up?|
|Danielle||We’re not really allowing ourselves to go there in terms of hope because the clinical trials were only done on children, although the FDA approved it, fast tracked it even for all people, all ages.
If this drug, which is called Spinraza, if it doesn’t work, there are also others in the pipeline that are coming down to compliment Spinraza or do something similar. So it’s really a bright future where there never really was light before in terms of medicine.
|AH||Will you just share a little bit about your passion and how you came to it?|
|Danielle||I really just took a course in high school that was Intro to Psych. I very much enjoyed it. I love the theory behind it and I wanted to study it more. Also, I knew that it was a job that I could do with a disability. I went to college and majored in clinical psych and just loved it even more.
I believe that was the first time when I really dreamt big and I realized that I was dreaming big because I thought, “Well, I’m going to go for my PhD.
|Danielle||So then from my PhD, I wanted to move to New York City because at the same time, I was really struggling with finding a partner for a romantic relationship. And this is actually very common for people with disabilities. As a teen with a disability, it’s like all of a sudden your disability becomes glaringly obvious. So in grade school, not so much. No one cares you’re in a wheelchair. But as a teen in high school, that’s when people begin to care, appearances begin to matter. And that’s when I started struggling. I never had a date to prom. I never had a date to homecoming. In college, I never really had anyone interested in me.
A good story is that I went to a chat room one night, a disability chat room. And for one night, they were going to talk about dating and sexuality. And I went to this chat room excited and hopeful and thinking, “Wow! No one has ever talked about this topic before. I can’t wait to ask my question. I can’t wait to find out more information. So I logged on that night, excited, and hopeful, and I asked, “Why is it so hard to find a boyfriend? I’m trying. I’m in a wheelchair, but so what?” And I remember the moderator was like, “Well, it’s going to take a long time, Danielle. It’s going to take a really long time, but don’t worry. Eventually, someone is going to be able to look past your disability.” And I thought, “Well, that’s crappy advice.” That’s the worst advice ever. Who wants to hear that advice? So, you know, the stereotypes had been reinforced in my example that dating is not for me. I’m not maybe sexual. I’m not a sexual person. I’m not sexy. But deep down, I knew that that was not right. So I thought, “Let me go to New York City, a big city, a city where people are open-minded. I’ll get my PhD. And hopefully, I will find love.” You know very kind of reminiscent in the Sex and the City.
|Danielle||So that’s what I did and I had a roommate who encouraged me to sign up for Match.com, which I did. And I begin dating for the first time. But again, I noticed this discrepancy between myself and my girlfriends. You know we were both all the same really. They didn’t have a disability, I did. And they were getting much more dates. So again, I looked around, and who could I talk to about this? Who could I ask advice from? Who’s doing this? Who’s dating with a disability? So I decided to write about it.
And one night my friend called and said, “I found something great for you on the internet. It’s perfect for you. It’s the Ms. Wheelchair New York 2012 Pageant.” And I looked it up and they combined disability and glamour together, which was the first time that I heard the two paired. So I thought, “Let me go in this competition. Let me win it. Let me use the title coupled with my PhD and really open that door to start talking about dating, disability, and sexuality.”
I hired a publicist and I opened my own practice after I got my PhD. I see clients over Skype to make it easier for people with disabilities to come to therapy. And many seek me out from all over the country to talk about dating and sexuality and sex and those topics and much more.
|AH||I am incredibly moved by your ability to ask this simple question, almost like why not and why not me? I just hear you sort of saying like, “Screw that. Let’s talk about this. Let’s get it out there. Let’s not keep this hidden in the shadows.”|
|Danielle||So I have my education and my background in psychology, but I also use my own personal story as illustration and as emphasis and I’m willing to share it so someone else can relate to it or someone else can be motivated by it. I’m not using the word inspired. I hate that word.|
|AH||Do you hate that word?|
|Danielle||Yes. It’s used too much with disability. But motivated and even if a date goes wrong for me or I’ll share an example where, you know, someone insulted me online because of my disability, but I’ll share it so someone else can say, “Okay, I’m going to try it. Danielle has been insulted so maybe I’ll be insulted and offended, but I’m going to do it too.”|
|AH||You’re the first and you’re willing to take the heat of the first and talk about it so that the people that come after you are safer.|
|Danielle||Yes. That’s interesting you say that because sometimes I’ve thought on a few occasions that my focus on this area, may be to my own detriment in terms of finding a mate because when a guy asks me on Tinder or on Bumble or on Match, what do you do? And I say, “Well, I’m an expert in dating and relationships and sex.” Many people talk about how highly educated women can be intimidating in the dating world and I feel like, “Well, this just adds to that complexity,” but I don’t care.|
|Danielle||I’ve spent many hours thinking, “Where’s the proof that it should matter so much in the dating world that these stereotypes are there and that they’re true? Where’s the proof in that?” And there’s none. There’s no proof at all. It’s just this antiquated image of disability that people cling and hold on to. You know the image that comes out of the poster child where you’re supposed to feel sorry for them or were viewed either as little angels who can’t do anything wrong or someone to feel really sorry for and to feel pity for, but that’s so dichotomous. Where’s the in between? There’s so much in between. None of that screams sexy. None of it.|
|Danielle||You know, people think that I could do nothing wrong because I’m in a wheelchair. They think I’m just innocent and pure and I joke that I feel like I could really go outside and do drugs right in the middle of the street or something illegal like that and no one would stop me.|
|Danielle||It needs to be normalized and I guess that’s the bottomline and that’s what I’m trying to do.|
|AH||And you’re willing to do it through increasing your exposure and being vulnerable knowing that people are not going to react well to it, some people are not going to react well to it and other people are going to, you know, leap with joy the fact that you’re saying the very thing that they felt for so long and no one has spoken to.|
|Danielle||For the population of people with disabilities, I think that there is no negative reaction to what I’m doing and I think that community can be kind of split into a couple groups. So the people who reach out to me and are like, “Yes, I’ve been wanting to talk about this so long. I want a partner so bad. I’m so horny. What do I do? How do I go about this?” And then there’s the other group that’s less forward. And I can understand that group as well because with the stereotypes that are there, we often don’t meet the milestones, the social milestones that other people meet. So we have our first dates later and maybe many of us in our 20s and 30s have never had a date before, have never been kissed before, have never held anyone’s hand romantically. So it can be very difficult when someone is with their able-bodied friends and they’re talking like, “Oh, when was your first kiss? How was that? Did you ever make out with someone?” Sometimes my clients will feel shame. They’re not part of that. It hasn’t happened for them. That’s really upsetting and that’s what I want to change.|
|AH||If you and I were dating and then we started fooling around, there might be some discomfort on my part like, “Wait. Is this okay? Can you do this? What do we do here?” And I’m noticing that as I’m asking those questions, it’s like you have to help me be with you. And that seems like unfair and inappropriate because you have your own experience of how you are in this place of getting intimate with another person. So what’s that like? Can you share a little bit about that?|
|Danielle||That’s a really good question and it’s actually come up with one of my clients recently because she has a partner without disability and he wants to… they both want to get more physical and he asked her straight up. “How will we do this? How will it work?” Well, she became shy and took it as maybe a rejection of some sorts,|
|Danielle||But a lot of men, they want to know how to help you and what to do. So, from my perspective or my patient’s perspective, it’s not something to be embarrassed about or to be afraid about. So if we were getting physical for me to say – So if you’re helping me take off my shirt. Okay, so if you just start with my left arm and lift it and help me pull it over the elbow, you know, I like to be very direct and I find that that the other person really appreciates that because they want to know. And at the same time, so you’re asking me how to help and I’m telling you what to do, but at the same time, I encourage my clients to, who have disabilities, to listen to what their partner wants so at the same time, it’s important for me to listen to you too. You know, it’s a two-way street. So you want to know how to help me, but how can I help you too? How are we going to get along together? What do you like? What pleasures you? And how could we work on it together? So it can be very collaborative and not necessarily such a one-way perspective,
If you look at it as a two-way, it’s much more well-rounded and can be a lot of fun.
|Danielle||It’s important to keep the lines of communication open. So you might ask me things like, “Danielle, what do I do now? How do we go do this next thing or what should I do?” It’s appropriate. It’s in line with what we’re doing. We’re getting together. We’re having fun, but there’s also a point where… there’s a point where some questions can be inappropriate and that happens a lot online. And I see it a lot with my clients’ questions like a conversation that will go something like, “Hi, what’s your name?” “My name is Sarah.” “Okay, Sarah, I see you’re in a wheelchair. Can you have sex? Have you ever had sex before? What positions can you do?” And that’s when you know that it’s inappropriate. That’s not an appropriate question. It doesn’t feel right. There are bad boundaries. This person doesn’t know you. And then you don’t have to answer it. So it’s just delicate balance of answering questions about your disability that are appropriate and then not answer when you feel uncomfortable or like you’re sharing too much.|
|AH||And sharing too much too early because that seems like an appropriate question once you’re in a relationship with someone and dating.|
|Danielle||Right. So say for example you and I are dating after several dates and you ask me those questions, I trust you. And at the same time, I can also begin to ask you personal questions, you know, because those are my sensitive topics, but you have yours too.|
|Danielle||So again, it’s about normalizing dating with a disability. It’s very similar and that’s important for people to know that it’s very similar to dating without a disability, the good parts and the bad parts.|
|AH||And if we understand it from that perspective, it’s a lot easier.|
|Danielle||Yeah, people with disabilities have high self-esteem when it comes to a lot of areas of their lives. But when it comes to dating, our self-esteem is really in the gutter. We just have none. And people with congenital disabilities, people born with their disabilities, you almost never thought about yourself as a sexual person. So as opposed to someone maybe with a spinal injury who is once functioning as a sexual person and then not.|
|I was giving a lecture at the Apollo and Harlem. It was an audience of mostly people without disabilities and three girls in their 20s came up to me without disabilities and they said, “Oh my God! That’s so me. The dateable self-esteem, that exactly describes it. I have like no confidence when it comes to dating. I’ve been rejected so much and nothing works for me.” And I thought, “Yeah, so similar.”|
|AH||You are bringing sexuality to the disabled. You’re opening up doorways and a whole life for them by sharing your story and helping them engage in this thing that is in a way their birthright that they somehow thought wasn’t because of how they were born.|
|Danielle||I gave a lecture recently and I mentioned Freud again because he talks about our basic sex drive as a human being, and why is it that… I mean for some reason someone somewhere decided that because you have a disability, you don’t have a sex drive, like that’s ridiculous. And even the stereotype of that we can have sex, I mean people have sex with dead people. You know why wouldn’t you be able to have sex with a disability? You know that’s pretty blunt, but that’s true.|
|Danielle||I really want to do TV work because I feel that that’s a really great way to debunk a lot of myths and issues and I say that, you know, if someone just saw me on TV kissing a hot guy, then people can say, “Oh, yeah, yeah.” People in Wheelchair’s Date, people in Wheelchair’s Date, I’ve seen that. I saw that show where this girl was with a hot guy making out. It’s like a similar concept to “I Am Cait” with Caitlyn Jenner. I mean she really put transgender on the map and exposed people to it. So I’m kind of working toward that.|
|AH||It reminds me of that Marianne Williamson quote where she says that, “Your playing small does not serve the world. Who are you not to be big and powerful and beautiful in the world? By living your truth you give other people permission to do the same.” It sounds like people, you’re giving them permission, disabled or not, to show up to their life and all its potential.|
|Danielle||And to add on to that, giving you permission to wear high heels, to wear sexy underwear, to shop at Victoria’s Secret, to go around naked in their apartment in their wheelchair, to go online, to flirt, to sex, you know texting, sexting, all of those things and say it’s okay. People are doing it in wheelchairs with disabilities. I’m doing it. Others are doing it. You do it. You can do it.|
|AH||Are you in a serious relationship? Where are you in that realm?|
|Danielle||So that reminds me of a Sex and the City episode where Sarah Jessica Parker says, “New Yorkers are always wanting something. They’re either trying for a great apartment, a great job, or a great relationship. They never have all three.” Yeah, a great apartment, a great job, a great relationship. I find that that can be very applicable to a successful career-oriented person because I spend a lot of time on my career and I enjoy it. I intrinsically love what I do. So I deliberately have to set aside time to not work on some days and focus on my personal life including friends and dating.
So I am on a couple dating sites and I have random dates here and there. The last person that I seriously saw was maybe about six months ago, maybe. I’m thinking about trying out this platform. It’s called Just Lunch and it’s where matchmakers will pair you with someone and you have lunch with them. I’m wondering how the matchmakers are going to react to having a client with a disability.
|Danielle||What are they going to say to the men that they’ll match me with? Are they going to say, “Hey, this is a great woman, she’s successful, she’s in a wheelchair, she’s a real powerhouse, you would get along great”? Or they going to say, “Would you mind? I know you want a successful woman. I have one, but she’s in a wheelchair. Is that okay?” See the difference?|
|AH||Do you ever say to people at the beginning of a date like, “All right, so I am disabled, I’m in a wheelchair, is this an issue for you? Because if it is, we should stop right now. But if you’re okay with it, let’s keep going. Let’s just get this on the table right away. Where do you stand buddy?” Maybe that’s a little too upfront.|
|Danielle||No. It illustrates a good point. I do a lot of online dating. So I definitely have pictures of myself in my chair and also I’ll write something about it in the profile because I’m a big proponent of putting it right up front.
So anybody who messaged me, they already know.
|AH||What does the able-bodied community need to get? What are we missing? And what would help our world move forward around sexuality and disabled?|
|Danielle||Try and move away from the paradigm where you need to have the best-looking partner who you can show off and who you feel like is able to have great and amazing sex with you like you see on TV or in the movies and try and open your mind to meeting someone who might not meet that paradigm or who deviates from it, but can be a really amazing match for you. Because a lot of people, and I say this to my Ted, are unhappy in their relationships and they feel like they’ve met the person, but they’re not happy and maybe it’s because they’re not looking at this entire group of other people and that’s people with disabilities. Because it’s not just about physical appearance and how “good” you are in bed, those things very superficial and that’s only like a fraction of what intimacy is. So look for intimacy in everyone. Disability or not or race or not or religion or not, whatever, think outside of the box.|
|AH||Danielle, this has been a delightful conversation.|
|Danielle||I really hope we push that elephant out of the room.|
THANK YOU TO DANIELLE SHEYPUK. TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HER WORK GO TO DANIELLESHEYPUK.COM (S-H-E-Y-P-U-K), AND OUR WEBSITE, ELEPHANTTALK.ORG, FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION AND RESOURCES ABOUT DATING AS A DISABLED PERSON.
IF YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE YOUR STORY SEND US COMMENTS, OR BECOME A SPONSOR, VISIT US AT ELEPHANTTALK.ORG. JOIN THE CONVERSATION.
OUR PRODUCERS ARE LISA GRAY AND KIM POLETTI. OUR THEME MUSIC IS BY ROB BURGER. ADDITIONAL MUSIC BY SATORI, KAILA FLEXER, JEFF WAHL AND RUBEN VAN ROMPAEY. AUDIO PRODUCTION ASSISTANCE PROVIDED BY LESLIE GASTON-BIRD AND JOSH KERN.
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THANK YOU FOR LISTENING. I’M YOUR HOST ANDY HORNING. THIS IS REAL LOVE. THIS IS ELEPHANT TALK.