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Rebuilding Without Erecting New Barriers
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Rebuilding Without Erecting New Barriers

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Rebuilding Without Erecting New Barriers
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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Displaced by Hurricane Katrina and now in Ohio, Greg Smith sees the world from a different perspective, that of his wheelchair. The 41-year-old father of three sees an opportunity as his native Mississippi coast rebuilds.

GREG SMITH:

Before dawn on the morning of the evacuation, I rode in the back seat of my parents' SUV. The night before had before a late one, so I chose to ride with my parents and three kids instead of driving. Twenty minutes into the trip north from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a voice on the radio got my attention: `Katrina is now a Category 5 hurricane.' Now I was worried. `Dad, what about my van and my chair?' Dad tapped the brakes. `You want to go back and get them?' Our house is built 21 feet above the bayou in our back yard. Surely my stuff would be safe from storm surge in the garage, so we drove on. The storm surge was 25 feet.

My family lost everything in the house. Before Katrina, I had a state-of-the-art, red, power wheelchair, the kind with a switch that elevates the seat eight inches so I could ride and socialize face to face. Before Katrina, I could roll that chair into my red-fire metallic, modified minivan, the kind with zero-effort steering that allowed my muscular dystrophy-weakened arms to spin the wheel around effortlessly to the bank or grocery store. I could taxi my kids around and take myself to restaurants, clubs and casinos to socialize. I could get most anywhere except in my friends' homes, because none of them were accessible to me. Imagine a life where you can't visit your friends in their homes.

Now I must rebuild my life. My temporary chair doesn't elevate; the van I ride in is not modified for me to drive. Neither is red; they're both blue! Someday I will drive a red van, in a red chair that elevates, back to Mississippi. But what kind of community will I return to now that my friends have to rebuild their homes? Since everybody's starting from scratch anyway, wouldn't this be a great opportunity to build a community that's accommodating to everyone? Every house should have one level entrance and one bathroom door that is 32 inches wide so we can roll in and we can pee.

In Biloxi, in Waveland, in Bay Saint Louis, Gulfport and Ocean Springs, so many neighborhoods have to be rebuilt. As the federal dollars, insurance money and charitable funds surge into the coastal regions, are people thinking about access? Not likely. Rather than using all this money to build barriers, steps, small doorways and narrow hallways, why not build level entrances, ramps and bathrooms where we can roll in and we can pee?

ELLIOTT: Greg Smith is the author of "On A Roll: Reflections from America's Wheelchair Dude with the Winning Attitude." He's the subject of the documentary "On A Roll," which aired on PBS in February. To see pictures of Greg and his family, visit our Web site, npr.org.

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