Series seeks to undo stereotypes about living with a physical disability
Ten minutes in 2012 changed Bean Gill’s life forever. She was on a trip to Las Vegas with some friends and woke up one morning with excruciating pain in her lower back. That pain, it turned out, was a virus attacking her spinal cord.
Within minutes, Gill couldn’t feel her legs. She’s been in a wheelchair ever since.
The particulars of Gill’s story are rare, even though her status as a person with a disability is not. According to Statistics Canada, 21.7% of Albertans over the age of 15 have a disability as of 2017, compared to a national average of 22.3%.
When it happened to her, Gill was despondent – and found herself falling back on stereotypes she’d unconsciously picked up in her previous life as a non-disabled person.
“I had those thoughts [about people with disabilities]: they’re fat, they’re lazy, they’re sad, nobody wants to be with them, they’re suddenly asexual, they don’t need pleasure or intimacy,” says Gill (Medical Radiologic Technology ’03), who in 2017 cofounded the ReYu Paralysis Recovery Centre, a non-profit that provides activity-based therapy for people with paralysis.
More recently, she starred in a new CBC docuseries called Push.
“Now, all of a sudden, I’m the person with the disability, and I have to unlearn all of that shit. I have to dismantle all of those preconceived notions and stereotypes, because that’s not me.”
It wasn’t until she stumbled across an American reality show called Push Girls, which followed four women in wheelchairs in Los Angeles, that Gill realized her future didn’t need to be so limited after all.
“After watching that show, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, people actually date in wheelchairs? You can have a job in a wheelchair? You can be fit in a wheelchair?’”
Gill came to realize that all her preconceived notions about life with a disability had been handed down to her by a society that wasn’t particularly interested in the actual lived experiences of those with disabilities. And what she quickly found out for herself was that none of those stereotypes matched the reality of life in a wheelchair at all.
Season 2 on its way
Season 1 of Push proved such a success that CBC gave the green light for a fresh batch of episodes. Watch for Season 2 in winter 2024 on CBC and CBC Gem.
Raising awareness and challenging biases
Push is intended, in part, to blow up those biases. The unscripted series follows Gill and her group of friends in Edmonton – who have lovingly dubbed themselves the “wheelie peeps” as they live their lives with the same energy, ambition and humour as people living without disabilities. It will air eight weekly episodes on CBC TV and CBC Gem, with a bonus ninth episode airing exclusively on the online Gem platform.
The idea for the show dates to 2019, when executive producer Kaitlan Stewart (Radio and Television – TV ’13) saw a magazine story about Gill and invited her for coffee. Stewart had just started a production company called Fenix Film & Television, and thought Gill’s story might make sense on the screen.
She was convinced immediately.
“I had so many moments [during the first conversation] where I thought, ‘I’ve never thought of that,’” Stewart says. “I got chills from what she was saying. I knew there was something there.”
Stewart brought the idea to CBC and got the green light to produce a short demo in December 2021. From there, the show had to be approved on multiple levels, before finally being approved at the series level. But at every stage, Gill’s charisma and passion shone through right away.
“It wasn’t like it was easy, but it felt like it was easy because you’re so used to hearing no as a producer,” Stewart says. “We just kept hearing yes.”
Fighting the stigma, one barbeque at a time
Gill is a naturally social person, and in the months following her infection, it took all that extrovert energy to find other friends with disabilities to connect with.
“Why,” she remembers asking herself, “don’t I see anybody in wheelchairs in Edmonton?”
What Gill found was a combination of generalized stigma towards people with disabilities and an unforgiving winter climate, which makes it even more difficult than usual to get around. Combined, these factors can isolate people in wheelchairs from city life as a whole. “No wonder nobody wants to leave their house.”
Gill refused to give in to these obstacles. Instead, she made a point of going out to every barbeque and fundraiser for people with spinal cord injuries she could find and kept striking up conversations with the other attendees with disabilities.
It was slow going at times, but she kept putting herself out there. Eventually, she found her “wheelie peeps,” 10 of whom appear in Push.
Meanwhile, the group continued to grow. Pre-COVID, they went out for monthly dinners together, where the social stigma was flipped on its head, to Gill’s delight.
“You should see the look on people’s faces when 10 people in wheelchairs roll into a restaurant,” she says with a laugh.
They also have a group chat on Facebook, which has grown to include more than 100 members, all of whom have physical disabilities. It’s a place to share tips and resources, discussing their experiences with everything from modifying their vehicles to finding the most comfortable cushions.
“We always tell people,” Gill says, “you’re going to learn so much more from people with lived experience than you will from any doctor, or OT [occupational therapist], or PT [physical therapist].”
Inclusion behind the camera, too
Stewart believes Push is the first show in Canada to have an entire leading cast with disabilities, and hopes it will not just be entertaining, but also generate discussion across the country on how to reduce stigmas and create a more equitable society.
“I think the show is going to open a lot of people’s eyes,” she says.
It’s also noteworthy for its approach to inclusion within the crew, several of whom were themselves people with disabilities. Stewart also hired an accessibility coordinator, whose job was to advocate on behalf of the cast during production, as well as a disability strategy consultant who reviewed cuts of the show and made suggestions.
Gill, meanwhile, sees the show having two distinct audiences: individuals with disabilities and individuals without.
“For people with disabilities,” she says, “I hope they see that they can live their best lives. We’re not in the ’50s or the ’80s anymore. This is the future, and you can do and be anything you want.”
As for viewers without disabilities, Gill hopes another key message comes through: We’re not that different from you. “We’re regular people, too,” she says, “and we deserve respect and dignity. We’re not just going to lay down and behave how people tell us to behave.
“We don’t want to be pitied anymore.”