New Growth Forrest
United Spinal Association
Orbit introduces a series of profiles of new members with this portrait of a young “Renaissance Man” named Toby Forrest
A Monthly Publication of United Spinal
Tobias (Toby) Forrest is positively brimming with self-confidence. Put simply, he is a man of action. He knows what he wants from life and does everything that he can to make it happen.
Such ambition is admirable, especially when coupled with the ability to adapt to change a characteristic that has served Toby well in life. He was born in San Francisco in 1975 and resided in several other states in his childhood. By the time Toby was nine, his biological father had abandoned the family and his mother had been murdered. Of the loss, Toby says, “Life is a struggle of loss and gain, and, while I have lost many things, I have gained just as much.”
Toby and his younger sister, Lani, were adopted by an aunt and uncle, Darelyn and Alan Olsen, who lived in Memphis, Tennessee. He quickly became comfortable with the new parental figures in his life. “I started calling them Mom and Dad in the first couple of years,” he says. Toby has had plenty of practice when it comes to adjusting to difficult circumstances; his experience with spinal cord impairment is no exception.
In 1998, on a Memorial Day camping trip when he was 22, Toby dove off a waterfall in the Grand Canyon, resulting in a broken neck and C-5 spinal cord injury (SCI). “Though I was in and out of consciousness, I remember quite a bit, mostly the minutes after I broke my neck and could not rise to the surface for air. I had to inhale water and almost drowned. I was without oxygen for a number of minutes.” Eventually, strangers brought him to safety.
The fall may have left him a quadriplegic, but the competitive spirit that once enabled him to excel as a student athlete was still firmly intact. A participant in such sports as rock climbing and gymnastics, Toby was never one to back away from a dare. Becoming a person with a disability is a challenge for anyone, but one that Toby was willing to meet. Of his injury, he says, “I just saw it as another sport to conquer.”
This fierce determination and the encouragement of his family helped him to cope with his newfound limitations. “My family has been amazing, supporting me through every aspect of life,” Toby says.
Often, he found solace in writing, composing poetry to express his feelings. An excerpt from one of his poems, “Shell,” describes some of these emotions:
“It is an event beyond the limits of time that can force us from a certain path. The spiritual silk spreads across the physical body binding the young soul in a cocoon; the shell forms, hardens and breaks; a life is changed. This is how it happened for me, my spine was broken and faster than a lightswitch my body turned off. An unexplainable feeling of not feeling and the unforgiving knowledge of understanding the situation. The situation being this; I’m 22, I made a mistake, my neck is broken, I’m under water, I can’t move, I can’t breath, I’m buried at the bottom of a shallow, watery grave. It is timeless how fast a situation can go from calm water to raging tempest.”
Toby’s poetry inspires him to create oil paintings. The artwork that accompanies “Shell” depicts a human form boldly rising above a broken shell; it seems to be a symbol of hope, not only for those with SCI, but for anyone who has faced adversity. “This art is meant to inform, educate and influence its viewer to understand that through tragedy and change we can find hope, understanding and acceptance.”
The Family Business
Two years after the accident, he was ready to live independently. “I moved out of my dad’s [house], and my mom helped me find and finance an amazing home in Fort Lauderdale [Florida] that we completely renovated.” Soon after, in December 2002, he earned his master’s degree in psychology from nearby Nova Southeastern University.
In February 2003, Toby moved to Los Angeles, California, to pursue a career in entertainment. Four months later, Toby attended an Abilities Expo in Long Beach. Little did he know that he was about to have an encounter that would change his life.
After having trouble finding employment, Toby met Adam Fine, a man with a personal stake in the future of home accessibility. His father had Parkinson’s disease, so Adam saw firsthand the need for home modifications among people with disabilities. Toby listened intently to Adam’s vision: a one-stop shop for people in wheelchairs seeking commercial and residential products and services for independent living. That year, Adam trained Toby to become an Independent Living Specialist at Accessible Design & Consulting, Inc., a company in Santa Monica that realizes Fine’s dream.
“It was a natural progression,” Toby says of his job. “I knew about many of the challenges our customers face and the services or products they require.” As he researches new products, he keeps in mind that, apart from the physical burdens that a disability can impose, there are also financial constraints to consider. “The financial burden of a disability is almost as difficult as the physical and emotional challenges,” he declares. “Expenses for everything are overwhelming. A home is tough to handle when you can physically do the work, so when you can’t, it really adds up.”
The process of finding an accessible home has left Toby with valuable wisdom to impart. “My advice to others is to be prepared to search, be patient and aware of what your needs are rather than your wants. Find a home that doesn’t need to be altered too much and make it as independent for yourself as possible. It is less expensive in the long run, and will improve your quality of life. Owning a home will change your life and your bank account, so research the best products for you, plus grant and loan possibilities.”
Accessible Design (https://www.accessibleconstruction.com) does all it can to ease the transition to independent living. It features a wide variety of products, including: stair, elevator and bath lifts, electric doors and threshold ramps. They also offer accessibility assessment and design services to homes and businesses, and feature fully renovated kitchens and bathrooms in their showroom. They have an art gallery where local artists with disabilities can show their work.
The company’s willingness to address the needs of individual clients is what sets it apart from other home medical equipment suppliers.
“Every situation, customer and disability is different from the next and each has a variety of requirements. Our goal is to meet those requirements in an efficient manner that is safe, accessible and affordable for the client.”
Toby credits his March 2004 membership in United Spinal Association with helping him to spread the word about Accessible Design.
“I became aware of United Spinal while researching a few topics for Accessible Design and, since I had a spinal cord injury, felt it would be beneficial to join. It has given me the opportunity to stay knowledgeable about recent developments and provided current resources to improve my personal and business relations.”
As both a representative of Accessible Design and a person with a disability, Toby knows the importance of treating clients with dignity. “My philosophy as a salesperson follows the concept that all people are treated in an equal and respectful manner.”
Toby’s personalized approach to business seems to mirror that of his adoptive father, Alan, president of Robomedica. Located in Culver City, California, the company’s mission is to help people with neural impairments to walk again. It has created an electronically controlled body weight support system, which uses central nervous system activity and sensory input to retrain the body to walk. With such a positive role model in business and in life, it’s no wonder that
Toby is successful.
Poetry and painting are sometimes considered introverted pursuits, but Toby is equally comfortable in the role of extrovert; he loves performing for others. “Acting is a form of transportation for me. I can leave a body that is restricted physically and enter a reality where anything is possible.”
Still living in Los Angeles, his credits include appearances on Six Feet Under and Malcolm in the Middle. In 2003, he received a $5,000 Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship. He is an accomplished comedian, eager to share his unique observations through “sit-down” comedy. Toby is also a research subject, involved in walking experiments at UCLA.
Toby’s middle name is Easy, though one could argue that his life has been anything but. However, when one takes a closer look, it becomes apparent that, while his body has its limitations, his spirit is boundless. “Life is a journey, and I would rather be slowed down than stopped, so I continue the journey.”
Lori A. Wood is a freelance writer who lives in Council Bluffs, Iowa.