Disabled and Displaced, but Not Despairing

by Cessna Catherine Winslow, Public Relations Office

Cedarville, Ohio-He's a single father, disabled, and now displaced. Greg Smith lost his home and all his possessions in Hurricane Katrina. For an able-bodied person, being a single parent and displaced would be very difficult; being disabled adds increased challenges. With the help of Yellow Springs film producer Joanne Caputo, Smith's situation is improving. Caputo took Smith's children in with her family and arranged for Smith to stay at an assisted living facility in Xenia. After hearing of Smith's plight, Cedarville University students reached out to Smith and gave him $2,500 to help offset his losses. Since September, the students have collected more than $116,000 to give to hurricane relief efforts, and Smith's story inspired them. The students learned of Smith when he came to speak at the University during Disability Awareness Month. Smith is the subject of a PBS documentary that recently received the 2005 Audience Choice Award. In the film, "On A Roll," Smith, who has muscular dystrophy, describes what life is like for a disabled man in an able-bodied world. He weighs just 65 pounds and is completely dependent on others to help him with basic life functions. Not letting his disability limit him at age 41, Smith has had a successful career as a broadcaster, motivational speaker, and author. On the personal side, he also earned a college degree, married, and fathered three children. "On A Roll" chronicles the challenges Smith faces in his quest to enjoy life in many of the same ways as his able-bodied peers and colleagues. At the end of the film, Smith divorces and takes his three children to live with his parents in Ocean Springs, Miss. Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home, and suddenly Smith was displaced. As a result of the hurricane, Smith lost both of his power wheelchairs, his disability-equipped van, and all of his personal and professional belongings. He arrived in Ohio in a manual chair, which was a challenge for a 65-pound man. Soon after settling here, a power chair was found, and Smith is now able to get around and share his story. Jon Purple, assistant to the vice president for student life at Cedarville University, coordinated the showing of "On A Roll" at Cedarville University for Disability Awareness Month. He noted, "As I was reviewing the film in preparation for the event, it struck me that Greg and his kids would be worthy recipients of some of the [hurricane] offering that was taken. I then went to my boss and suggested it to him. We agreed and chose to designate $2,500 to Greg's family." Smith was demonstratively surprised and moved when, after his presentation, he received a check from complete strangers. He thought he was coming to Cedarville to answer questions and enlighten students on the plight of being disabled. During the question and answer session of Smith's presentation, Julie Martz, a sophomore education major, asked Smith how young people can reach out to the disabled population. He responded by saying that it is important that able-bodied people befriend disabled people. "Not being able to dress myself is less humiliating than being devalued by able-bodied friends," he explained. Smith says that part of the devaluing comes from not being able to go places or visit friends as able-bodied people do, primarily because of accessibility issues. He challenged young people who may one day build or design a new home to consider making their home handicap-accessible so that disabled friends can visit. He explained that being able to come in the front door and visit in a family or dining room can make a difference in helping the disabled feel accepted, and he noted that such housing modifications can be relatively simple. Statistics show that one in five Americans has a diagnosed disability. For some, physical and mobility issues are involved while others have an impairment that is psychological or neurological - commonly known as a hidden disability. With such a large portion of the population disabled in some way, disability awareness is vital in today's society, according to Purple. He shared, "I believe that it is critical for our students to be aware, educated, and sensitive about and toward individuals with disabilities, both visible and hidden, to be productive members of our increasingly diverse world." Smith hopes students and others will share that belief. "Disability is a beautiful part of the diversity of life," he explained. Smith is not one to let discrimination or alienation get him down. "I don't let people's attitudes get me down; instead they fuel me," he shared. While in Ohio, Smith is enjoying new opportunities to share his story and increase awareness of disability issues. Repairs on his family's home are nearing completion, and he anticipates returning to Mississippi this month. And when he returns he may even see some Cedarville University students. University students have volunteered to spend their Thanksgiving vacation serving on clean-up teams in the South. Additional teams are planned for Christmas and Spring Breaks. For more information about Smith and "On A Roll," visit www.onarolldocumentary.com. Information on Cedarville University Hurricane Relief efforts can be found at www.cedarville.edu/disasterrelief.