Dr. Danielle Sheypuk is a New York City-based licensed clinical psychologist, disability-rights advocate, media commentator, and fashion model with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). A self-described “sexpert,” Dr. Sheypuk specializes in helping those with disabilities work through the complexities of dating, relationships, and sexuality.
“Dating and the establishment of romantic relationships rank very high among life’s priorities,” said Dr. Sheypuk during a conference at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York. “But this priority is much, much more complex for someone with a disability.”
As Dr. Sheypuk, 43, recently explained in an interview with Popsugar, “I’ve found that having a congenital disability affects one’s self-view as a sexual person from a very early age.”
She noted in the interview that the general population has misunderstandings about people with disabilities — that they are “physically unattractive, fragile, unable to care for a partner, weak/dependent, unmasculine/unfeminine, and infertile.” These negative stereotypes can shape a person’s understanding of their sexuality as soon as they become aware of it, such that they frame it through a “negative and distorted lens.”
Dr. Sheypuk began to explore this relationship between disability, sexuality, and “dateability” during her graduate school years. “While all of my grad school friends were on dates, I decided to use my Ph.D. in psychology and the title of Ms. Wheelchair NY to start talking openly and very publicly about dating, sex, and disability,” she told Popsugar. “I wanted the world to know that this topic exists, and I wanted to reframe it into something positive.”
Now, Dr. Sheypuk runs a private therapy practice that helps those with disabilities build their “dateable self-esteem.” While she noticed that individuals with disabilities tended to have higher self-regard in areas like school and work, they lacked the same feeling toward relationships and sex. She helps clients increase their dateable self-esteem by first helping them to consider themselves as sexual beings — changing the traditional societal narrative by identifying what makes them feel sexy, acknowledging which body parts bring them confidence, and starting to reframe their understanding about who can be considered sexy in the first place.
“Building dateable self-esteem requires combating both internalized ableism and the ableism of others,” Dr. Sheypuk told Popsugar. “It also involves approaching dating from the right perspective, and that perspective starts with knowing the fact that dating is difficult for everyone, disability or no disability.”
Dr. Sheypuk encourages clients to put themselves out there — to be vulnerable and open despite how scary that may feel at first. She acknowledges that rejection is a reality for everyone and it is important not to take it personally. And, ultimately, the more one practices flirting, interacting with others, and building their confidence, the more natural it will feel.
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