Katherine Clare Smith Defies Limits of Disability to Become a Renowned Athlete, Teacher & Activist

The late Katherine Clare Smith was studying nursing at Penn State University in 2007 when she suffered a devastating spinal cord injury in a car accident, leaving her quadriplegic. In the 15 years that followed, until her death on February 27, 2022, her courage and determination propelled new personal and professional accomplishments as she invested in others and fought for justice. 

Katie, who grew up in Stahlstown, Westmoreland County, spent six months recovering from the accident and decided to return to college for teaching when she was told she could not complete the clinical portion of her nursing education. She enrolled at Seton Hill, and, in 2012, graduated with a psychology degree and elementary and special education certificates. She started her career as a private tutor and substitute teacher. 

Katie honed her public speaking skills, developing a program she presented to students to cultivate inclusive environments and promote self-advocacy for young people. At the nonprofit Patient Education & Advocacy Leadership (PEAL) Center in Pittsburgh, she designed and coordinated curriculum and events for transitioning youths with special needs. She later worked with vulnerable community members through Disabilities Options Network in Greensburg. 

Katie also became an accomplished athlete, competing nationally with the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers quadriplegic rugby team. An avid adaptive skier, hand-cyclist and horseback rider, she twice competed in an international quadriplegic rugby tournament in France, completed the Pittsburgh Marathon three times in hand-cycling and joined the USA Boccia Paralympic national team. She also enjoyed artistic endeavors, including pottery, drawing, gardening and crafting.

Named Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania in 2013, Katie was a governing board member for the PA Youth Leadership Network and a board member of the United Spinal Association’s local chapter. Through that organization, she participated in Roll on Capitol Hill, lobbying for better accessibility on airplanes. She also served Seton Hill as a member of the Alumni Advisory Council. For her advocacy work, she was invited to the United Nations to participate in a summit hosted by the international Humanity & Inclusion organization.

Seton Hill University’s Distinguished Alumni Leadership Award, established in 1987, is one of the highest honors given to a graduate. Setonians have been named distinguished alumni for their leadership in education, business, science and technology, the arts, volunteerism and philanthropy.