FORSYTH—Not too long ago, Arvin Post said, most disabled people knew this drill: “The route to go was the garbage truck route, because wherever a garbage truck could go, a wheelchair could go.”
Even now, he said, rolling down the alley is often easier than trying to navigate a wheelchair through curb cuts in sidewalks, and paved alleys are often flatter and smoother than sidewalks.
In Forsyth—“I was born and raised, educated and jailed in Forsyth,” he said—progress has come slowly but surely. An elevator was installed in the Rosebud County Courthouse 10 or 12 years ago, and Forsyth City Hall, which already had good ramp access, recently installed automatic doors.
Just six months ago, the railroad crossing that connects the north and south sides of Forsyth was paved, with asphalt replacing the gravel that used to be between the sets of tracks. It was possible to get over the tracks in a wheelchair back then, Post said, but only through “main strength and awkwardness.”
Those improvements all stemmed from passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. But Post has seen other changes as a result of the ADA’s passage.
“What the ADA has really done is instructed the world about how we wanted to be treated,” he said.
Post will be one of the speakers this Thursday in Billings, when the 25th anniversary of the ADA is commemorated in the Kmart parking lot on Central Avenue. (See below for details.) The celebration is being held a bit earlier than the anniversary date to coincide with the visit of the National ADA Legacy Tour Bus, which has been crisscrossing the country since last summer and will end its journey in Washington, D.C., on July 26.
It will be a big day for Post, who has been advocating for the rights of disabled people nearly as long as he’s been using a wheelchair. He was 18 in 1974, one of five people in the cab of a pickup truck—“We were not so big in those days”—when it hit a pothole on the frontage road about 10 miles east of Forsyth.
The truck swerved off the road and rolled several times, “scattering people for 60 to 100 yards,” Post said. “I broke my back and my friend Ralph broke his neck.” The driver and the other two passengers all suffered relatively minor injuries. Post later burned his feet, then lost both of them and parts of his legs to infections and circulation problems.
He first got involved in activism by trying to put Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act into effect. Passed in 1973, with the help of protests by disabled Vietnam War veterans, Section 504 was the first U.S. legislation to extend civil rights protections to people with disabilities. However, Post said, “it was given zero teeth. There was no power to enforce anything.”
When he gives his speech Thursday, he plans to talk about Jennifer Keelan, who, as a second-grader with cerebral palsy in the spring of 1990, joined what became known as the “Capitol crawl.” She and other people with disabilities shed their crutches, wheelchairs and other devices and dragged themselves up the 82 nine-inch steps of the U.S. Capitol.
When it was strictly adults going up the stairs, Post said, they were easy to ignore, even to belittle. Members of the media were clamoring and shouting out questions, and suddenly 8-year-old Jenny joined them.
“When she got out of her wheelchair,” Post said, “everybody shut up.” She was quickly surrounded by cameras, and “she said, ‘I’m gonna climb these steps if it takes all night.’ It was a really, really powerful moment,” Post said. Many people still credit that protest, and Jenny’s involvement, with passage of the ADA a short while later.
As for his own role in pushing for civil rights, Post said, “The thing I did, the thing that actually mattered, was that in Forsyth I didn’t go away. I didn’t go into hiding. I didn’t let my embarrassment show.”
As he explained, when he broke his back he lost control over his bowels and bladder, and “when you soil yourself in public and you don’t die, it’s amazing the embarrassment you can withstand.”
After the ADA passed, one of the first committees he served on dealt with access to voting booths. He said he visited every voting site in Rosebud County, noting changes that would improve access. He has been the county’s de facto consultant on ADA compliance ever since.
Robin Johnson, who grew up in Forsyth and has been using a wheelchair for 27 of her 46 years, remembers Post as a cheerful but strong-willed advocate for people with disabilities. Once, when Post had pressure sores on his backside, Johnson recalled, he was seen going around Forsyth on a hospital gurney, lying on his stomach and propelling himself with a pool cue.
There were no curb cuts then, Johnson said, and at one corner he had difficulties and fell off the gurney onto the street. Among other injuries, he suffered burns on his back from the hot asphalt.
“So I know he pushed for those curb cuts after that,” Johnson said.
Johnson is now a peer advocate in Billings for Living Independently for Today and Tomorrow, a nonprofit agency that works to improve the lives of people with disabilities in 18 Eastern Montana counties. It was she who suggested having Post speak at the rally on Thursday, which LIFTT is sponsoring. She’s heard him speak before and said he is very well informed and always inspirational.
“He really knows his legislation, he knows the government and he knows the Bible,” Johnson said.
Post, who lived in Billings for a time, has long worked as a computer programmer and has been in bands that played around Montana. As part of his appearance at the ADA ceremony Thursday, he plans to play guitar and sing a medley of songs, including “What a Wonderful World.”
That song comes from the heart, he said, because despite what remains to be done, the improvements and changes in attitude over the past 25 years make “this is the most wonderful world there’s ever been for disabled people.”
Details: The celebration of the 25th anniversary of the ADA will run from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the parking lot of the West End Kmart, 2424 Central Ave., and will include a “walk and roll,” speakers, live music, a vendor fair featuring disability-related service providers and equipment, raffles, a games area for kids and concessions.
Bonus: For a preview of his appearance at the rally, click here to watch our video of Post singing “What a Wonderful World” in the kitchen of his home in Forsyth.