Making The World Better At Montana’s Independent Living Symposium

Posted on August 28, 2011


Recently, I agreed to be the photographer at a statewide symposium for independent living that Cass and her colleagues at Montana Independent Living Project or MILP (like them on the Facebook-click here!) were organizing. This isn’t my first taste of the Independent Living movement, but no matter how much I’m around it, I always leave so inspired.

I got my first taste of the movement on a trip I took with Cass and her work to a national conference in Washington D.C.I had never been before and this was a good chance to see the city on the cheap. It also included a march on the capitol building in honor of the 20th anniversary of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA—like education, these guys are really into acronyms, too). For a week, I got a free hotel and a chance to bum around D.C., something everyone should do.

The march, however, was one of the more memorable things I’ll ever remember doing. People from every state organized themselves on the sidewalk outside the hotel lobby; thousands in total. A giant likeness of Justin Dart in his wheelchair (the father of the ADA movement) began the march. Traffic came to a standstill until all the participants walked and rolled by. Chants of “our homes not nursing homes,” and “equal rights for all” echoed off the white marble buildings on our way to the capitol steps. I took pictures through it all; it was awesome to be a part of it.

Like most big events, it wasn’t the grandeur of it all that was memorable (though it was), it was one singular moment that defined my entire trip.

I was out in traffic taking pictures of people in the march. An older man rolled by. I snapped a picture of him guiding his chair along the street by means of a joystick—he had very limited use of his hands and arms. Hanging off the back of his chair was a sign that read, “I escaped a nursing home.” When I read those scribbled words and realized the magnitude of what they meant, it nearly knocked me over.

I describe Cassie’s job as ‘literally making the world better,’ and I believe every word of that. Independent living is based on the simple fact that everyone, everyone, deserves to live the life they choose. It’s something that people take for granted; getting caught up in the hunt for a rental, figuring out car payments, having a job. It isn’t like that for everyone. There is a significant population of people that are fully capable of living on their own, but have either been dismissed by society, don’t fit what we think people should look like, or are banished to a nursing home—literally—so that we don’t need to deal with them.

The technical communicator in me wants to thank that man for making a brilliant sign. It was undoubtedly his writing—as it should have been. Mainly, his choice of wording, ‘escape.’ Think about that for a while. You don’t escape from things of your own choosing.

Choice—that’s the crux of the entire movement. Better yet—freedom. That’s all anybody ever wanted. Right?

So this symposium was a meeting of the four statewide agencies—the cohorts of MILP—to celebrate their victories and organize themselves for current and future goals. I met loads of really cool people that I’m sure will see again.

A cool part for me, personally, was to meet Kevin Michael Connolly. He was the keynote speaker the first night, staying to sign autographs and sell books after. You may recognize that name from my previous post: Yes, You Can Kick Ass Without Having Legs or my Q&A feature article with Kevin on He instantly recognized my name and thanked me for the article–he had good feedback from it–that made me feel good. This was the first time I wrote a feature about a person and then had the privilege to meet them afterwards.

Kevin’s world is really happening right now and I’m happy for him. His memoir about living without legs is becoming a movie and he’s in the pilot stages of filming a show for the Travel Channel. Keep him on your radar, he’s gonna blow up. Anyway, I happen to have one of my books in the car, so I gave it to him to check out—us author types need to stick together, you know—and chatted with him a bit as he signed a book for me. Really, I just wanna to shred up Big Sky with him. Is that so much to ask?

Kevin, Cassie, and all those working to better the lives of people should be hailed as heroes. They are fighting a system that has too little money, too little infrastructure, and still too much stereotyping. I am honored to have taken part, if only a little bit, in this event.

I’ve always had this vision of changing the world in some way. At least I can support Cass while she makes our world better each and every single day.

*For those of you wanting to check out more of my shots from the Symposium, MILP created two albums you can browse: click here and here!

Posted in: Photography, Think