[Marxism] Disability rights documentary

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 15 11:19:40 MST 2005

NY Times, February 15, 2005
Defying a World That Sees Only His Limits

It's not that race has never affected Greg Smith's family. His father, Jim, 
who grew up in Mississippi, was accepted to medical school until the people 
who ran things discovered he was black. Once, when the family moved to a 
new house, an F.B.I. agent went to interrogate him, the elder Mr. Smith 
says, because it was considered suspicious for a black man to have "a boat, 
a riding lawn mower and a new car - two cars." But Joanne Caputo's 
documentary "On a Roll," which has its premiere tonight on PBS's 
"Independent Lens" series, is not about race.

"The difference between racial discrimination and disability 
discrimination," Greg Smith says, "is that racial discrimination is based 
more on hate, and disability discrimination is based more on fear, 
awkwardness, stigma, coming to terms face to face, flesh to flesh, with 
your own mortality, your own vulnerability to becoming one of them."

Mr. Smith was born in 1964. When he had not begun walking by the age of 3, 
his parents took him to a doctor and were told (in "the colored waiting 
room," he says, even if the official signs had been taken down) that he had 
muscular dystrophy and probably would not live very long. Today Mr. Smith, 
who has used a wheelchair since the age of 13, weighs 65 pounds and needs 
assistance bathing and dressing every day but is able to drive a specially 
equipped van. He also has a syndicated Radio America show, "The Strength 
Coach," and a thriving career as a motivational speaker.

He broadcast his first radio show, "On a Roll," a series that lasted 11 
years, from his bedroom in Yellow Springs, Ohio. (The Smiths have since 
moved back to Mississippi.)

"On a Roll" is highly worthwhile and inspiring but ultimately depressing. 
Jim and Adelia Smith insisted that their son be allowed to attend regular 
public schools rather than special institutions for disabled children. 
After high school, he went to Arizona State University, where he worked for 
the campus radio station. He wanted a career in radio sales but was told 
that his disability made that a bad idea.

His personal life has been relatively normal. Jim Smith remembers Greg, as 
a teenager, coming home with a cousin one night "drunk as Cooter Brown," 
vomiting and being forced to clean up the mess himself. Greg Smith married 
and fathered three children "the old-fashioned way," he says, but the 
marriage went downhill. Terri, his ex-wife, says in the documentary that 
Mr. Smith lost interest in her when she gained weight after the children 
were born. Her former in-laws say the bigger problem was that she tried to 
burn the house down, with her husband inside. Yes, Mr. Smith has custody of 
the children; his mother takes care of them.

"On a Roll" addresses the physical abuse of the disabled, which is common, 
and Mr. Smith's political activism. President Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary 
Rodham Clinton and Senator Edward M. Kennedy make brief appearances in the 
documentary, talking about the Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 
1990, and related issues. Mr. Smith, addressing his radio audience, 
expresses understandable outrage at a Nike magazine advertisement for a 
shoe that won't turn an athlete into "a drooling, misshapen, 
non-extreme-trail-running husk of myself forced to roam the world in a 
motorized wheelchair." (Nike has since issued a formal apology for the 

Mr. Smith certainly makes his point when, during a visit to Washington, he 
has almost unconquerable problems getting to political events connected 
with disabilities legislation because, he says, so few taxis have 
wheelchair ramps.

"No, I don't really see a lot of change in people's perception of 
disability" in the last few years, Mr. Smith says near the end, "or the 
mainstream media's projection of the proper disability message." Some 40 
million Americans are disabled and, as Mr. Smith likes to point out, 
anybody who lives long enough will be, in some way some day.



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