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‘Strength Coach’ from Ocean Springs takes mission to national stage

BY JEFF CLARK

Special to the Sun Herald, July 23, 2015

OCEAN SPRINGS – Coast resident Greg Smith has been an advocate for people with disabilities for most of life. Smith, a native of Ocean Springs, has led the way for the disabled through a variety of measures including public speaking, his website, an active blog and his weekly podcast. But now, the “Strength Coach,” as he is commonly known, is taking his mission of acceptance to a national stage.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which will be recognized Sunday, Smith is asking for some assistance from Major League Baseball in removing the stigma often associated with those with physical and mental disabilities.

‘I’ve always felt that there’s a void when it comes to seeing people with disabilities on television,” Smith said. “I’ve always been looking forward to see this. So, I decided to reach out to some of my sports casting colleagues in Arizona. This led me to the vice president of broadcasting for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Scott Geyer. He immediately saw the beauty of the idea.”

The mission

Smith, 50, who was born with muscular dystrophy, said his request to Geyer was a very simple one – show more fans with disabilities during game action cutaways.

“At first, Scott wanted to do more elaborate things and I told him that all we want to do is to be mentioned and shown, especially on our day, the day we got our civil rights. It’s a big anniversary, 25. It’s a very easy thing to do, which is recognize those with disabilities.”

According to Smith, the phone call with Geyer set off a chain reaction with other MLB broadcasters.

“An email was forwarded to all of the teams letting them know about this,” he said. “It’s a recommendation at each team’s discretion. But it’s such an easy thing to do, I don’t know why they wouldn’t want to do it.I think all of them will do it, but I can’t guarantee that. If only one team does it, it’s a success. The reasons they don’t show us are invalid. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. If we are going to make a contribution to pop culture, we need to be seen on TV.”

While Smith admitted he’s a fan of sports in general, he said the catalyst for his mission began with the his love/hate relationship with the Chicago Cubs.

“It’s funny, I had kind of lost baseball for a while primarily because my team – the Cubs – was terrible, but now they are making a resurgence,” he said. “So, I started watching them every time they played. I knew the anniversary the ADA was coming up and I thought about baseball. All of this started June 23 and now we’re pulling it off. It’s amazing.”

ADA at 25

The ADA was passed by Congress in 1990. It’s a civil rights-based legislation prohibiting discrimination against people with physical or mental disabilities. It was signed into law by then-President George H. W. Bush. Some of the many changes the law has presented is accessibility for the disabled in public entities and on public transportation and the option for closed-caption television viewing.

“To me, this anniversary is a like a holiday,” Smith said. “Before the ADA, if you wanted to go out to lunch, you couldn’t be guaranteed the restaurant was accessible. You couldn’t be guaranteed that you would have access if you went anywhere. You had no recourse if you were discriminated against in employment.”

The right time for change

Smith said he blames the lack of disabled Americans on TV and in pop culture on the high standards set by the entertainment industry.

“There’s no doubt that they want a lot of good looking people on TV,” he said. But I think there are a lot of good looking people with disabilities and I happen to be one of them.”

Although Smith said the entertainment industry plays by its own rules, he said he believes the current national culture climate is beginning to change and that the change could bring more acceptance for the disabled.

I think that our antiquated thoughts are that people that are deformed or misshapen are repulsive and that TV folks may not want to show them,” he said. “But we are more accepting. Look at Caitlin Jenner. She won an ESPY. They bathed the White House in rainbow lights. It’s a new age and it’s time for the disabled to come into the mainstream. People that are different need to be accepted.”

Keeping the momentum going

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 56.7 million people, or 19 percent of the population, had some type of disability 2010. More than half of these disabilities were reported to be severe.

Smith said his success in getting MLB on board with his project has inspired him to present it to other professional sports organizations.

“I’m going to take the momentum we have with this and go to other sports. It’s a simple little thing, but little things mean a lot. It makes a difference. It’s so easy to do. Americans with disabilities are part of the fandom. When you represent the fans but leave out a part of it, there’s something wrong with this picture.”