Corbett O’Toole’s voice is proud and strong.
She has fought for disability rights for most of her life – If you look closely enough at montage from the 504 Sit-In, you might see her. She was present for that ground-breaking activism and is still working on projects today. She is a warrior that we in the disability community owe a debt of gratitude toward, for her work in creating a more accessible world for all of us.
Corbett is a mother too. A beautiful video of her dancing with her daughter:
She is also an author and recently penned her first book, Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History.
Please meet Corbett O’Toole
Getting to Know You
Your name: Corbett Joan O’Toole
What’s your connection with disability?
Wow. How long did you say this could be? I’m as old as dirt (65 – which is 85 in crip years) so I have lots of connections. Been disabled since age 1 with polio. But I love the disability community so much I’ve added a few more disabilities along the way .
Right from the beginning, my mom propelled me into the sometimes hostile but always interesting nondisabled world with alot of love and support. I moved to Berkeley in 1973 and discovered disability rights communities. I have a disabled daughter, and three goddaughters (two of whom have disabilities).
Star Trek or Star Wars?
Hmm hard to answer. I like the sumptuousness of the Star Wars visuals but prefer the folks who inhabit the Star Trek world (but only post-William Shaftner).
If you could live in any other country for 2 years, where would you go?
Are you paying the way? Lots of places I’d love to live but I’d need alot of support help because of access barriers. With unlimited funds for access, I’d like to live on the east sub-Saharan coast of Africa. With limited access funds, Hong Kong, which I visited briefly and found surprisingly wheelchair accessible.
What dish would your bring to our community picnic potluck?
Edamames in the pods sauteed in sesame oil and sprinkled with garlic chili powder.
Now That We’ve Been Introduced…
What do you do:
Last year some friends and I started Autonomous Press (AutPress.com). We’ve published 4 books including my own “Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History”. We plan to add 6-12 new books every year.
My days are spent writing, organizing events, creating art, making presentations, gardening and introducing people to each other and to resources. I know a lot about disabilities, parenting, education, disability history, and intersections between disability, women and queers. I am always eager to learn more about the worlds of disabled people so I read disabled writers and go to disability events.
How did you come to doing what you do? How has your career trajectory flowed?
I moved to Berkeley, California in 1973 just when the disability rights movement was being built. I got to watch it happen and decided to get involved. I was in a women’s group with Kitty Cone, who went on to be the chief political strategist of the 1977 San Francisco 504 Sit-in.
I was at the Center for Independent Living with Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann. I watched the creation of many, now iconic, disability organizations including: Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), Through the Looking Glass, Computer Technologies Program, Center for Accessible Technology, Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, and Whirlwind Wheelchairs. Over the years I worked with nearly all of these organizations as either an employee or consultant.
In 1990 I stopped officially working due to ongoing fatigue issues and I focused on short term projects. I just started doing projects that interested me and hoped that the money would come to make them happen (which it usually did). I was involved with the Disabled Women’s Contingent for the United Nations Fourth International Conference on Women (1995), the First International Conference on Parents with Disabilities and their Families (1997), Women’s Conferences for the Society for Disability Studies (1998, 1999), Queer Disability Conference (2002), and various gatherings on race and disability (2005, 2006, 2010).
Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years?
Alive. No seriously, that answer depends on my health. If healthy, I want to be traveling for 3 months every year to put new sights, sounds and smells into my brain. The rest of the year I want to make art, write down what I’ve learned, and spend tons of time just hanging out with interesting people.
Not to be morbid, but what do you want people to remember about you when you’ve gone?
That I kicked ass. Which, for me, means that I had integrity, passion, and fought for justice.
Who or what inspires you?
I love people with passion, who do what they love no matter what anyone else thinks. I’ve seen passion in a dance, in a community organizer, in the eyes of a lover. I love people who are big – who take up alot of space and fill it with love and create joy. One of my current favorites is Page Hodel who makes a new heart every week and sends it out on a free email list. No one pays her to do it, she does it out of love and shares it for free with the world.
On the disability front, these days I am impressed with the amazing insightful activism of Autistic women. I read their blogs and know that the world is a better place because they are in it and telling their truths. Women such as:
- Elizabeth “Ibby” Grace http://www.tinygracenotes.com/
- Kerima Cevik http://autismwomensnetwork.org/category/tags/kerima-cevik
- Amy Sesquenzia http://autismwomensnetwork.org/category/tags/amy-sequenzia
- Neurodivergent K http://timetolisten.blogspot.com/
- Lydia Brown http://www.autistichoya.com/
I just finished reading Susan Nussbaum’s new novel, Good Kings, Bad Kings, and it is absolutely the best disability novel I have ever read. It is funny and insighful with a very diverse cast of characters. The ease of the writing style makes it very accessible to a wide range of readers but the topics are complex and compelling. A rare feat. A great treat.
If you could say something to yourself in the past – that is, the you that was really struggling with something related to disability – what would you say?
It gets better, ask for help, and don’t give up too much of your life worrying about it.
What do you like about your particular disability?
Having polio is like going back to the same neighborhood over many years. It’s always a bit the same and always changing. While I am not always happy with the surprises (like not walking anymore), I find it’s given me many ways to grow. As my body’s become weaker, I’ve learned patience (not a gift I was born with), to ask for help (not something I like doing), and to be grateful for the gifts I get each day (even if it’s just being pain-free).
Any one thing that you wish people would *get* about disability?
That it can be a joyous experience and not really a big deal. I love the way that people’s bodies move and look in different ways. I love the way that people turn that into dances, poems, plays, books, and blogs that celebrate who we are. As Neil Marcus says, “Disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.”
What single piece of technology makes your life easier?
My P-200 electric wheelchair. It was the first chair designed and made by disabled people and it’s a tank. It takes me anywhere I want to go. It can be taken apart into 4 pieces and loaded into a car. And it’s really durable. Mine is 15 years old and I plan on using it until I die.
Because I have an apostrophe in my name, I can be very hard to find online. So I collected my writings and put them on my website www.CorbettOToole.com
My oral history is at:http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/collections/drilm/collection/items/otoole.html
Meriah Nichols is a counselor. Solo mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one on the spectrum). Deaf, and neurodiverse herself, she’s a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.