Access Press and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) both reach the quarter-century mark this year. So it’s fitting that we take a look back at our founding editor, Charlie Smith.
Smith died in 2001 but his impact on disability issues as a journalist is still felt today. He is not only honored as a determined and resilient fighter for disability and human rights, he is remembered as a dedicated friend, son, brother, uncle and mentor. He reached out to all people, especially those who were learning to live with disabilities. At a memorial service on Charlie Smith Day in June 2001, letters were read from schoolchildren Smith met during classroom visits.
At his memorial service, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone said, “If I had to identify one of my real teachers in the community, it was Charlie Smith.” (Wellstone died in a 2002 plane crash.)
Smith became a quadriplegic in 1967 as a result of a diving accident. He was 14 years old when another child jokingly pushed him. Instead of falling into water, he fell onto concrete. In 1981 he entered the Residence at Courage Center for rehabilitation. He looked at several careers before deciding, with his family, to start the newspaper.
In those pre-Internet and social media times, Access Press was one of dozens of neighborhood and community-specific newspapers published in the Twin Cities. Newspapers gave readers news and information not available elsewhere, and alerted them to key issues. Without Access Press, it would have been much more difficult for people with disabilities to organize around key issues. Readers waited eagerly for each issue. Not surprisingly, one of the first major national issues Access Press covered was passage of the ADA and the large statewide celebration held in Minneapolis.
Smith was a committed disability rights activist and was well known in political circles. One of the stories longtime friends tell is of a demonstration he led in 1996, in then-Gov. Arne Carlson’s office.
When the group demanded that they be allowed to speak directly to the Governor about Personal Care Attendant/Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act legislation, they were told that the governor was unavailable. Smith’s friend, Jeff Bangsberg recalled that day.
When the group learned that Carlson wasn’t available, Smith replied plainly and firmly, “We’ll just wait here, then.” And wait they did. Smith had arranged for an attorney to be present. He and others were aware of the possibility that group members might be jailed for using such tactics. However, much to the delight of the demonstrators and much to the consternation of the state troopers present no one could figure out how to transport the “Wheelchair Dozen” to jail. They were free to go, much to the group’s amusement.
Carlson became a frequent target of Smith’s. The editor once described him as “Reagan in a Gopher suit.” But while Smith was quick to scold elected officials and point out what he saw as problem policies and laws, he also gave kudos to those who worked to improve conditions for people with disabilities. Many elected officials noted that when Smith talked, they listened.
As former state representative Lee Greenfield once said, “When Charlie Smith interviewed you, you knew that he knew what he was talking about.” Smith led Access Press through many changes, including conversion to nonprofit status and its first volunteer board. He donated many hours of time to public speaking about disability culture and life with disability. He especially enjoyed speaking with children and young people, helping them to understand what life with a disability was like. He was as fearless as he could be wryly funny and his friends miss him to this day.
Smith is honored every year with the Access Press Charlie Smith Award. Individuals and groups with records of exemplary service and commitment to others are worth of nomination for the award. The award will be presented Friday, November 6 at the newspaper’s annual banquet.
Nominations will be taken until 5 p.m. Friday, August 14. Information on the award can be found here on our website. Email [email protected] for a form. Or call 651-644-2133 for assistance. Let the newspaper staff know if assistance or accommodations are needed to submit an award nomination.
Please send a high-resolution digital photo or an actual picture of the nominee. Otherwise, be prepared to tell the editors where a high-resolution picture can be obtained. Pictures will be returned on request.
The award winner is chosen by the newspaper’s board. The winner and finalists will be honored in the September issue of Access Press. Any individual or group in Minnesota is eligible for nomination, with some conditions. People cannot nominate themselves. Past nominees can be nominated again, but a nominator cannot submit the same person or organization in consecutive years. A person or organization can be nominated for two consecutive years, but has to wait one year before being nominated again.
Access Press is also seeking banquet sponsors. Sponsorship levels start at $200 and end at $400, with sponsor level names reflecting terms in the newspaper industry.
Be an editor-in-chief, keyliner or proofreader. Each sponsorship level brings a different level of recognition in the newspaper print edition, on its website and at the banquet itself. Being a sponsor is a great way to honor the Charlie Smith Award winner and to be more visible in Minnesota’s disability community. Check the newspaper website for sponsor information or call Access Press Business Manager Dawn at 651-644-213 or email [email protected].
The website also has information at the banquet itself, which is held at the Minneapolis Airport Marriott in Bloomington.