Monday, October 26, 2009

Disabled ex-cop honored for helping make Charleston, S.C. more accessible

From The Post and Courier in Charleston, S. C.:

Even sitting in a wheelchair, his hands not fully functional, there's a physical presence about Gilbert Smith, the former police officer who was shot on duty and left paralyzed from the waist down.

Maybe it's left over from his rough-and-tumble days as a bouncer in his dad's bar. Or maybe it's just the force of his spirit.

"He's left his stamp on a little bit of everything here," Gwen Gillenwater, executive director of the disAbility Resource Center, said last week when presenting him with a Lifetime Achievement Award for making Charleston more accessible to the handicapped. "He's one of the real giants in our community."

Smith will be 63 in December. He was paralyzed Dec. 12, 1970, nearly 40 years ago.

"I've outlived the statistics," he said.

Before he became a police officer, Smith worked as a bartender and bouncer at his dad's nightclub. It was called the Coconut Grove on Pittsburgh Avenue in North Charleston. Smith also collected loans for his dad.

"I was big and strong back then," he said.

His dad died in a tractor accident when Smith was 20. He went to work for the Charleston Naval Shipyard before joining the police department.

He took a test in the morning and was given his badge, gun and handcuffs that evening. He spent the first two weeks riding around with an older officer, who was also shot on duty but survived without any permanent damage, and then was sent out on his own.

Fewer than four months on the job, Smith got a call that a man was passed out in the middle of the road in rural Charleston County. Smith loaded him in the back of the patrol car to take him to the jail. He didn't handcuff him because the man didn't have a right hand.

Smith would learn later that the man lost his hand in a shootout. He previously had served time for robbing a bank.

The man woke up in the back of the car, grabbed Smith's gun, shot him in the back and pushed him out of the car. The man later said he saw the devil.

Smith would never walk again.

As a result of the incident, the department installed cages in all the patrol vehicles and instituted a training program for new officers, Smith said.

In the 1970s, people in wheelchairs were expected to stay home. Smith didn't like that idea. He missed nine months of work, then got council members to pressure his superiors to give him a desk job.

"I didn't want to stay home," Smith said. "I wanted to work."

He continued to work until he retired in 1987.

The county police department merged with the sheriff's office in 1991.

Smith figured he was not the only person in a wheelchair who wanted to live a productive life. He made it his mission to make the world more accessible to wheelchairs.

In the 1970s, there were no handicapped parking spaces and few wheelchair ramps on public buildings. You seldom saw a wheelchair in public.

"I was out there trying to work for my independence," Smith said.

He became president of Achieving Wheelchair Equality and started Lowcountry Wheelchair Sports, which includes basketball, tennis and a host of other activities. He also plays in national pool tournaments in Las Vegas almost every summer.

"We found sports was the key to get people back in the mainstream," he said.

Former Gov. Carroll Campbell appointed him the first chairman of the State Independent Living Council in 1994. Smith got a federal grant to start the disAbility Resource Center.

He started educating local municipalities and colleges and went around showing business owners how hard it was for him to get in the door, getting them to install ramps voluntarily.

"That's how I got things accomplished, just talking to people," Smith said.

Things changed dramatically after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Now public buildings are required to be accessible to the handicapped.

Smith still has a problem with many of Charleston's curbs and sidewalks. They're dangerous not just for those in wheelchairs but for many senior citizens, he said.

"Charleston has come a long way," he said. "It hasn't made the strides of a lot of places across the country. They always try to hide behind the history."

He cites San Diego as a historic city that's more accessible than Charleston.

Smith lives alone. He's been separated from his wife since 1991. They have two grown daughters.

It took him two years to learn to dress himself alone. Since then, he's moved on to water skiing. He wants to try parasailing next.

"I've always strived to be accepted for who I am, not just that cripple in the wheelchair," he said. "I'm Gilbert Smith. A wheelchair is just a tool for me to get around, just like somebody else might have to wear glasses to see."