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'Paralyzed Bride' uses sexy photos to challenge attitudes about disability

Disabled and sexy. The two words are rarely seen together, according to Rachelle Chapman, who decided to change that with a racy photo shoot.

Five years after being paralyzed from the chest down following an accident at her bachelorette party, the 29-year-old North Carolina wife and new mom known worldwide as the “paralyzed bride” now wants to be known as something else: a sexy, young woman.

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In a series of professional boudoir photographs she released on her Facebook page to encourage people to see beyond her wheelchair, Chapman poses in nothing but lacy lingerie. She hopes the photos will help people see the romantic potential of people with disabilities.

“With these images, I’m saying, this is who I am, this is what I look like, this is what I feel like. I’m still sexy, I’m still a woman, I can still be intimate, but I’m still the exact same person when I get in my chair every morning,” she told TODAY.com. “It was a good, positive image to show who I am and what I look like and give a different face to disability.”

It took a long time before Chapman felt confident enough to both take the photos and share them with the public.

On May 23, 2010, Chapman fell into a swimming pool after being playfully pushed by one of her bridesmaids. She fractured the C6 vertebra in her neck.

“After an injury like this, you wonder how can you be sexy and intimate again, and I think after five years, I’ve figured it out,” she said. “I’m happy as I can be, and I want to show other women, not only in my exact situation but also anyone who thinks there’s something ‘wrong’ with them, that’s not who they are. I don’t like the disability that I have, at all, but my disability is not who I am.”

A new mom, whose 3-month old daughter was born via surrogate, Chapman said she has been used to widespread attention because of her unusual accident. The comments she reads online have been overwhelmingly positive, but even some of those remarks have been hurtful, like the ones addressing her husband's "bravery."

“Some people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, he stayed with her after that? He would be with her like this?’ At the end of the day you think, ‘Well, what is so wrong with staying with me?’” she said. “It made me think about other women, and men, who are single, who are just like me. I wanted to do these photos for them, because if society is going to look at us like we’re asexual and not good viable partners, then that’s a problem."

Chapman wants to start a social media conversation to encourage other people with disabilities to feel confident. She has asked them to express what makes them feel beautiful through a #WhatMakesMeSexy campaign.

The response to the original photo she posted on Facebook has been positive, receiving more than 16,000 likes and has been shared nearly 5,000 times. Chapman said she especially likes hearing from women who have told her the photo has boosted their own self-confidence.

“If I helped one person feel better about themselves, just one of those messages out of hundreds I’ve gotten, it’s going to overshadow anyone who is negative, who thinks they’re too inappropriate,” she said.

“In seven days, they’re not even going to remember this picture because they will have moved on to another story. But for the girl I’ve helped who’s single, who has a catheter bag and who now feels sexy, that’s who I care about. And that’s what makes it worth it.”

Follow TODAY.com writer Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter or on Google+.

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