Willing to Work Harder and Longer: A Tribute to John Smith

I have known and worked with John Smith for many years. I first met him as an advocate for The […]

I have known and worked with John Smith for many years. I first met him as an advocate for The Arc of Hennepin County (which has since become part of Arc Greater Twin Cities). I have gotten to know John much better in the 15 years or so that he has worked at the University of Minnesota.

There is no one I’ve ever known to be more completely dedicated to increasing opportunities for persons with developmental disabilities than John Smith. His work with People First Minnesota is legendary. During John’s years as the advisor of People First Minnesota, state chapters expanded steadily and the attendance at annual self-advocacy conferences grew from dozens to hundreds of participants. John is known for never balking at loading his car with self-advocates and heading to distant parts of the state whenever and wherever there was hope that a new self-advocacy group might result.

John’s work in self-advocacy is just one reflection of his passion for increasing self-determination for people with disabilities. In his research work at the University of Minnesota, John has teamed with Brian Abery to develop methods of data collection on self-determination. He has pushed for programs that make person-centered outcomes the focus of quality assessment. He has worked to increase access for people with developmental disabilities to homes of their own. He has written and spoken about (and exemplified) the importance of self-determination and leadership as key goals of the developmental experiences of children and youth with disabilities.

John is also well known for his commitment to environmental stewardship and support of wilderness and adventure opportunities for all. He has long and often been recognized for his volunteer and trip leadership work at Wilderness Inquiry. This outdoor passion has spilled over into John’s work at the Institute on Community Integration, where he has been a key figure in joint initiatives between Wilderness Inquiry and the University of Minnesota. Together they have developed and evaluated programs that increase outdoor adventure opportunities for persons with developmental disabilities and members of their families. Finally, John has been active in publicizing the outcomes of these initiatives in publications and presentations.

I am generally hesitant to speak of someone’s disability as adding an important subtext to what they are able to accomplish. But on a personal level it is significant in my appreciation of all that John has accomplished that he has done so with substantial physical handicap. His substantial knowledge and skills notwithstanding, John’s success has been in large part because he has been willing to work longer and harder than others to accomplish what he is driven to accomplish. In that way John has enriched his world—and those of us who … have shared it—not only with his achievements, but also by his spirit. That spirit inspires us and makes us glad that our lives share a common purpose with John’s. While we at the University of Minnesota feel very pleased that John has received the Charlie Smith Award, recognizing all that he has done, we know John has great things left to accomplish and we look forward to many more years of working alongside of him as he does so.

Charlie Lakin, Director of the Research and Training Center on Community Living at the University of Minnesota, is a friend and coworker of John Smith.