When you think of unscripted television, shows like Survivor or MasterChef might come to mind. What about a show that follows wheelchair users? Probably not something any of us have seen. CBC’s new show, Push, is looking to change that.
Push, a docu-series, follows the lives of seven wheelchair users living in Edmonton. This group of friends, known as “Wheelie Peeps,” includes mothers, concert pianists and business owners. It stars public speaker, model and entrepreneur Benveet (Bean) Gill.
Executive producer Kaitlan Stewart first learned about Gill in this magazine’s magazine’s 2019 Top 40 under 40 edition. Stewart explains that Gill’s story “jumped off the page,” so much so that she emailed Gill asking her if she had any interest in doing television.
“We met for coffee and I just remember having chills like multiple times over knowing that there was definitely something there. We didn’t know what it was at the time but it just grew from there,” Stewart says of what’s become Canada’s first prime-time show featuring a full disability cast.
When Gill was first paralyzed from the waist down, she had assumptions on what life with a disability would be like.
“Just by media’s portrayal of people with disabilities for decades has not been a stylish, sexy, healthy successful, fun [person]. It’s always been oh this poor sad person has a disability and they can’t do anything for themselves… I had to unlearn so much,” she explains.
One thing that helped Gill dismantle those beliefs was a reality show called Push Girls. The show, which first aired in 2012, chronicled the lives of four women who use wheelchairs in Los Angeles.
“After watching that show, that’s when I really realized that like, oh my god, people will date people with disabilities. Like, you can have a job and have a disability, you can be fit and have a disability. Because I just never thought of those things,” she says.
Knowing the impact that show had on her was one of the reasons she said yes to doing a TV series about her own life. She also wanted the opportunity to showcase a city like Edmonton and she knew that her interesting and diverse group of friends, the “Wheelie Peeps,” could make for something special.
While she may be nervous about having her life out there for the world to see, she feels that Push can help make positive change and break down stigmas. “I want to show my East Indian community and other communities as well that having a disability isn’t shameful. It’s not about having a burden,” she says.
The other cast members of Push, and members of the Wheelie Peeps, are new mom Natasha Urkow, Brian McPherson and his partner Victoria Berezovich, concert pianist Riccardo Baldini, Job Developer Aleem Jaffer, and Brittney Neuzig, who’s trying to break the stigma around spinal cord injury.
Gill was instrumental in bringing this close-knit group of friends together after she realized that something was missing in Edmonton.
“When I was there (visiting L.A.), I saw people in wheelchairs literally everywhere, everywhere I went. And when I was here, I didn’t see anybody. No one, right. And other than, you know, the odd senior citizen, or like a homeless person here or there, I never saw anybody that looked like me. So, when I came back, I was like, OK, well, I gotta find my friends. I gotta find my people. And so I started going to these [events] and meeting people,” she says.
Push, shot in Edmonton from July to December 2022, takes us directly into the lives of the Wheelie Peeps. Viewers will see Urkow’s pregnancy journey, Gill’s dating life and Baldini’s return to the concert stage. Oftentimes, disability-centred shows are either inspirational or evoke a sense of pity. Stewart explains that it was important for Push to focus on what the cast was going through during filming and to not fall into the cliches around disability.
“It is really showing their full lives. We’re not zeroing in on the disability. The disability is obviously an aspect of everybody’s life, and it poses its own challenges, but really, what we’re showing is a group of people who are mothers and entrepreneurs and speakers and, you know, crass Brian, the heavy machinery operator — we’re showing them as people first and the full breadth of who they are as people. And of course, the disability is one aspect of that, but it’s not reducing them to that, which I think has been sort of the common thread up to date with other projects that have been disability centred,” she says.
Edmonton also features heavily in the series. The first episode alone features shots of downtown, the High Level Bridge and Whyte Avenue — they’re almost characters in the show.
“The fact it’s being shot in Edmonton is another layer of disbelief. You know there are so few shows that have been shot in Edmonton, like major network doc series that have been done there over the years. I think what sets Push apart in that sense is that Edmonton is really the world in which our participants exist. Other shows have sort of focused on a restaurant or a sports team or something like that, whereas our Wheelie Peeps are all over Edmonton,” explains Stewart.
Catch Push starting February 24 at 8:30p.m.ET on CBC TV and CBC Gem.