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Honoring the Life and Legacy of Greg Smith

Friday, June 10, 2016

Honoring the Life and Legacy of Greg Smith

The National Council on Disability joins the disability community in mourning the loss of Greg Smith, 52, who passed away June 2. Greg collaborated on a number of events with NCD over the years, including a “National Dialogue on the State of Disability” Town Hall at the National Press Club on the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2006 and a twitter chat on the issues facing fathers with disabilities as recently as 2015.

Smith was a pioneering disabled broadcaster whose love for radio emerged while still in high school while working as a play-by-play announcer for the student radio station. Smith later earned a BA in broadcasting from Arizona State University and eventually became the sports director on the campus radio station. After graduation, Smith worked as the research and sales promotion director for KTAR/K-Lite Radio in Phoenix, and hosted Cardinal Talk, a call-in show that aired after NFL Cardinals games for three years.

In 1992, Smith shifted his focus to disability issues. His flagship radio show “On A Roll” began on a local AM radio show in Phoenix and despite significant obstacles and, at times, blatant resistance from mainstream media the program expanded to more than 70 stations over the next 11 years. 

Greg’s mission to see disability services and programs facilitate the achievement of the American Dream was both personal and professional. To Greg, people’s stories were powerful—their lives mattered, and he used his pulpit to share their stories with listeners across the nation. To Greg the value of the disability community was best realized when reaching out to others and not just paying lip service to itself.

In June 1998, Smith caused a stir among the disability community by having Christopher Reeve, who had just been named Vice Chairman of the National Organization on Disability, on as a guest.  Reeve, who had been paralyzed in a horse riding accident just three years earlier, was a controversial figure in disability circles at the time for his emphasis on curing paralysis rather than giving attention to larger societal and systemic concerns. Reeve requested that Smith conduct the interview himself.

Smith later recalled that he felt, in time, Reeve would, “shift some of that media spotlight on the true disability experience, on disability rights, legislative issues and things that matter to the lives of all people with disabilities.” His instincts were correct.

In 1999, he engaged with the Congressional Black Caucus to address unique issues facing “double minority” groups actively engaging in intersectional advocacy before most were aware of the concept.

His public radio commentaries—which aired bi-weekly on WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio for a year—earned  second place in the Public Radio News Director’s National Award for Smith’s December 1999 commentary about the animated film Toy Story 2, where a broken toy is rejected by the child who had previously adored it.

Smith authored two books, his bestselling memoir, “On A Roll: Reflections from America’s Wheelchair Dude with the Winning Attitude” and “Shut Up! Silencing the Negative Voice Within.” A candid documentary detailing his life as a broadcaster, advocate and parent, “On a Roll: Family, Disability & The American Dream” aired on PBS stations around the nation in conjunction with Black History Month in 2005.

During the ADA’s 25th anniversary celebrations on July 26, 2015, Major League Baseball (MLB) requested that all broadcasts of games that day highlight fans with disabilities in the stands, a campaign initiated by Smith. “I have been watching baseball on TV my whole life and I have never seen one shot of a fan with a discernible disability,” Smith told The Washington Post. “This gesture by MLB is being celebrated by the disability community as a key milestone. TV time and acknowledgement of our community are important for us to develop disability pride and… put our spin on pop culture.”

On October 6, 2015 Smith had a stroke followed by two cardiac arrests which literally killed him.  After resuscitation via CRP, the Mississippi Medicaid Waiver program rejected his request for financial  assistance to fund 35 hours per week of personal assistant care because Greg once helped pay for his daughter’s tuition. While in intensive care, Greg was unable to respond to queries from Social Security Administration about income he earned as a speaker and the SSA suspended his benefits.

At the time of his passing, Smith was working on establishing a non-profit organization in Phoenix to serve as his production facility and residence.  He wanted to leave a legacy that would continue producing disability-centered media and be made available to people with disabilities in need of transitional housing upon his death.

Greg Smith’s commitment to helping others develop their own disability pride and his trailblazing efforts as a disabled broadcaster and radio host have earned him a unique place in disability history. A history that he played a valuable role in both chronicling and shaping. He is survived by his parents, Jim and Adelia, and three children.

An official website of the National Council on Disability