Nevada disability rights activist dead at 55

Aug. 5, 2002
by Tracey McCartney
National Fair Housing Advocate Online

Ronald Ray Smith, the colorful and sometimes cantankerous "Enforcer" of civil rights for people with disabilities in Nevada, died on July 16 at his Las Vegas home.

He was 55.

Smith was the technical adviser for the Nevada chapter of the Disabled Rights Action Committee ("DRAC"), a Utah-based non-profit organization whose mission includes enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the accessibility provisions of the Fair Housing Act.

Smith, who had used a wheelchair since a childhood bout with polio, moved to Las Vegas in late 1992 with the stated goal of fighting casinos and developers of new housing who were cranking out new buildings rapidly but with little or no regard for the requirements of federal accessibility laws.

"Building after building was coming off the construction line, and it didn't comply with the ADA," he said in a 1998 interview with The Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Smith recruited attorneys to help DRAC file lawsuits against casinos and developers of apartment and condominium complexes, but the suits met with mixed success. In some cases, the group's complaints were thrown out of court after judges ruled the group was not the appropriate party to bring them.

Other complaints, however, led to settlements that included physical improvements for greater wheelchair accessibility:

  • In May 1998, a Las Vegas developer settled a housing discrimination case brought against it by setting aside $20,000 to remodel inaccessible apartments and paying DRAC $17,500.
  • In late 1999, DRAC convinced a judge to order Harrah's Casino in Reno to stop operating its shuttle buses until they could be made accessible to riders in wheelchairs and scooters. The suit settled in DRAC's favor a few months later.
  • In late 2001, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals told Coast Resorts, in a DRAC lawsuit, to renovate 800 hotel rooms whose bathroom doors were too narrow for wheelchairs and to fix two slot machine kiosks.
"He accomplished much -- casinos, buses, restaurants, and multifamily housing developments were made accessible" through his efforts, said Richard Armknecht, a friend of Smith and one of the attorneys who often represented DRAC against developers and casino operators.

Smith's aggressive style often put him at odds with his fellow activists. He was known to complain about fellow fair housing advocates' emphasis on race discrimination, and "Ronald's military style of leadership was somewhat inconsistent with a volunteer-based civil rights group" like DRAC, Armknecht said. "Many left DRAC after getting a lecture from Ronald."

He also made himself a thorn in the side to officials at the Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, two agencies he believed never moved quickly enough to pursue violators of federal law.

Still, Smith had a good sense of humor and was able to see the "big picture" of civil rights enforcement, Armknecht said.

"Ronald often said that his goal was to 'bring Las Vegas into the 21st Century' before he died," Armknecht said. "He did not reach his goal, but he blazed a path for others to follow."