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Views of Disabled : Television: 'Outlook on Physically Challenged' is a public access TV show that has hosts who are disabled. It has attracted some well-known entertainers as guests.


SAN DIEGO — The twist, the angle that makes "Outlook on the Physically Challenged" different from other television shows dealing with the disabled, is immediately noticeable. Host R. David Smith is missing his left arm below the elbow. Co-host Steve Kaliszewski is in a wheelchair, a quadriplegic.

This is a show from the inside of the physically challenged community looking out at society, not vice versa.

The producers invite the audience to "grab our hand and let us show you what having a disability is and how to better communicate," Smith said. "Give us a chance to educate you, instead of you educating us about us."

"Outlook," which has been airing on Cox Cable's "Rainbow Channel" (Channel 4) for more than a year, covers everything from the locations of handicapped access ramps to modern technological advances. Although it has the rudimentary look of a public access show (relying primarily on interviews shot with one camera), "Outlook" has managed to create a programming niche for itself, dealing with issues involving the disabled community. The show is taped at Cox studios in El Cajon and airs at 7 p.m. Wednesdays, repeating at the same time Fridays.

A variety of big name guests, including "Major Dad" star Gerald McRaney, who has worked with disabled performers, and deaf actress Marlee Matlin, have appeared on the show to discuss the role of the disabled in society. And it has managed to generate interest in the disabled community, despite a slim budget.

But the producers have larger goals. The program attempts to educate and inspire not only the disabled community, but the able-bodied as well. For people not familiar with the disabled, the program "explodes myths," according to Bill Brody, president of the Challenge Center, a nonprofit group based in El Cajon that provides rehabilitation facilities for disabled adults.

"There is a lot of curiosity out there," Brody said. "We all see the curbs cut in the streets, the parking spots. People are curious about it, who are these people? A show like this clears a lot of it up."

All involved agree the program has a tremendous amount of credibility, primarily because it is a show about the disabled, by the disabled. Radio traffic reporter Monica Zech served as co-host for the early shows, but she soon left, in part because it seemed inappropriate to have an able-bodied co-host.

"People called and asked, 'What is Monica's disability?' " Smith said.

Smith, who was born without his lower left arm, is Cox Cable's public access coordinator. He has never let his disability affect his career. He has worked as a Hollywood stuntman and actor, in addition to participating in sports, including water skiing. He has appeared in movies like "Predator II" and television shows ranging from "L.A. Law" to "Tales From the Crypt." He also has worked with a variety of theater groups that coach the disabled.

Smith started "Outlook" as a public access show, intent on educating people about the disabled. He was tired of people's lack of understanding, their ignorance of what it means to have a disability.

"I remember I was in the gym and there were guys 10 feet from me watching while I tied my shoes saying, 'I'd hate to be like that,' as if I was deaf," Smith recalled.

People naturally think the worst, he said. They wonder how quadriplegics go to the bathroom, how they have children. They don't know the proper etiquette because most people don't interact with many disabled people.

"When I grew up there were no role models for me," Smith said. "I don't think people realize that there are 43 million people with physical disabilities, and they're not being fairly represented."

From his many talks with youngsters, Smith learned the importance of bringing issues out into the open to discuss the often uncomfortable subjects.

"Kids ask questions parents are afraid to ask," Smith said. "Once they ask, they don't think about it anymore."

Soon after Smith started the show, Cox decided to pick it up for the Rainbow Channel, its local-origin channel, making it a Cox production and giving it the greater exposure available on Channel 4.

"We felt that this was one segment of our market that wasn't being addressed by any other local media," said Cox spokeswoman Sandy Murphy.

Kaliszewski, who works as a recreational therapist for the Sharp Rehabilitation Clinic, was a guest on the first few shows, and gradually developed into a co-host. Like Smith, he was motivated by what he saw as a clear need for a program that addressed what the disabled can do, not just what they can't.

"I don't think there is enough awareness and things showing the positive side of what the disabled can do," said Kaliszewski, who plays rugby, tennis and a variety of other sports, with the aid of special equipment.

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