ON A ROLL

Independent Living

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The Film

A sign for On A Roll talk radio, with a drawing of a microphone. Greg Smith in a suit jacket, leaning back and smiling with his hands behind his head. Greg Smith exiting a van on a wheelchair ramp.

From his state-of-the art radio studio in his parents' Mississippi home, Greg Smith—who dubs himself “the wheelchair dude with attitude”—offers advice, encouragement and inspiration on his popular nationally syndicated radio program, reaching out to not just the millions of Americans living with disabilities, but to all Americans. In ON A ROLL, Smith’s upbeat, tough, and often humor-filled message closes the gap between the abled and disabled by stressing that we all need help from each other, every day.

Smith sounds like any other dad as he talks to his daughter on his cell phone and calls her "sweetie pie," but interviews with his three kids prove the opposite. "He needs help using the bathroom and getting in bed,” Smith’s daughter Berkeley says. “He can't play baseball that good." Yet Berkeley also knows what her father can do: "He can move and drive... and talk." Although he looks tiny and emaciated, Smith’s deep announcer’s voice chats with listeners about his new power wheelchair—which can zoom around at eight miles an hour—and blows the whistle on Clint Eastwood, Nike and Rush Limbaugh for their insensitivity toward people with disabilities. As former White House Disability Task Force Director Becky Ogle and World Bank Disability Advisor Judy Huemann mention in the film, disability activism is alive and well in America, focusing on such growing trends as independent living.

Following an experience with disability-related job discrimination in 1992, Smith started On a Roll talk radio. By 2000, more than 40 cities aired his program, but it still lacked major syndication—an example of what Smith’s producer Mike Ervin refers to as part of the "institutionalized bigotry" that people with disabilities face on a daily basis. In addition to disability discrimination, Smith’s family has also experienced institutionalized racial discrimination in America: it was in a "colored" waiting room where Smith's mother, Adelia, first learned that her son had muscular dystrophy, for example. Smith's father, Jim, was once offered financial aid to attend medical school in Mississippi—but at the time, none of the Mississippi medical schools would accept black students. Now an affluent corporate executive, Jim Smith insisted that his son learn to do things for himself, such as climbing the stairs—even if it meant using his chin. As a result, Greg Smith’s severe disabilities have not limited him from striving for his dreams.

Smith’s dreams also include pursuing relationships with women, and in ON A ROLL, he shares with viewers the challenges involved in being sexually active with his disability. It's known as "facilitated sex," according to Dr. Mitch Tepper, founder of SexualHealth.com, a normal activity of daily living that may require a little help. In 1990, against his parents' wishes, Smith married Terri, a self-confessed "party girl" who also became his personal care assistant. The marriage was troubled from the beginning, yet Smith decided to have children anyway—three in quick succession—which caused his parents great anxiety due to the genetic risks involved. Terri later became violently abusive toward Smith, an event that mirrors the high rate of crime against people with substantial disabilities in the U.S., a rate higher than child abuse, elder abuse, hate crimes and domestic abuse combined. After Smith and his wife divorced in 1999, he won custody of the children with support from his parents.

President Bill Clinton at an A.D.A. event, surrounded by umbrellas.

Greg Smith rolls his wheelchair up a ramp at an A.D.A. event.
Greg Smith attended President
Clinton's address at the
tenth-anniversary celebration of the
A.D.A. in Washington, D.C.


Although Smith's personal life has been fraught with drama, his work as an activist and speaker has been consistently rewarding. He has been profiled in major magazines and news programs, and is featured in a permanent Philadelphia exhibit on "33 Exceptional Americans.” As seen in ON A ROLL, Smith was the lead torchbearer during the tenth-anniversary celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A.) that culminated in a large Washington, D.C. event addressed by then-President Clinton. Yet despite the A.D.A. fanfare, Smith encountered a lack of disability awareness throughout his stay: switching off a hotel lamp and even finding a wheelchair-accessible cab to take him to the event became major challenges.

Back living at home at his parents’ house at the age of 40, Smith might not find himself exactly where he had planned to be, but he remains optimistic. He weathered the removal of his GM promotional van when he couldn’t meet their five million dollar insurance request, but is frustrated by the mainstream media's inattention to disability rights. When a lack of sponsorship resulted in Smith ending On A Roll talk radio in 2003, he quickly created The Strength Coach, a new show devoted to teaching the public about "lifting the weights of life's challenges." ON A ROLL is a portrait of a fighter who keeps rolling through tough times, his spirit changing not only his own destiny, but those of countless others as well.

Smith, in his wheelchair, holds up a T-shirt reading “The Strength Coach”.

Update

Filmmaker Joanne Caputo shot ON A ROLL between 2000 and 2004. In January 2005, she reported the following:

It's hard to catch up with Greg these days. He's so busy traveling as "the Strength Coach." His dad recently retired, but is starting his own business. Greg's mom continues to hold down the fort, which now includes a dog. His ex-wife Terri is juggling college and work, and enjoying her children’s visits.

Learn more about Greg Smith >>

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