Profile: Corbett O’Toole, Alum, Activist, Author, and Artist
With a crisp tone, Corbett O’Toole discussed with me what it means to be a disabilities activist, and what growth has occurred in the years since she was born in Boston, MA. Corbett knows exactly what steps to take and excels at letting the world know that being disabled should never be seen as a problem. The continued fight for disability rights and the fight for survival ring in her voice. Disability is just one more facet of human existence, and the goal should be to highlight individuals and lift them up for exactly who and what they are. This is of upmost importance.
With ties to Fitchburg State University via her educational experience, and her interests in disability history, talking with her about changes that have occurred and changes that still need to happen was an amazing look into growth and development over time. She also highlights areas with much need for improvement. The importance of disability history and maintaining a running goal of accessibility for all were highlights of our discussion.
Corbett was born in Boston, MA and has been a disabilities activist for much of her life. She graduated from Fitchburg State in 1973 with a degree in Special Education K-12, and impressed upon me the differences between tolerance of individuals with disabilities when she was on campus and tolerance of that population now. She went on to study at Antioch College West in San Francisco for disabilities and counseling. She uses her education to speak out against the differences in treatment between individuals considered disabled and the able-bodied community. She is a writer and artist as well, and the topics of disability history and personal experiences shine a light on discrepancies in human treatments. The importance of remembering people with disabilities and how they have been treated over their lifetimes, so that we continue to improve upon quality of life, is of grave importance.
The losses of people with disabilities through inhumane acts and natural disasters are displayed in her artwork. Although an issue, mercy killings are not widely discussed in mainstream society. Therefore, the forgotten loss of people with disabilities in natural disasters, plagues, and mercy killings are important to recognize. For instance, with COVID-19 the losses of elderly and people with disabilities in nursing homes should not be ignored, otherwise, in the future we will need to recognize that we as a society were inept at providing for the rights of this group of citizens. That issue is one of great importance to O’Toole; defending the rights of these types of individuals is a priority. Right now, defending people with disabilities who have been lost and looking back at her own history concerning these rights is a pivotal part of what her activism encompasses.
Of specific importance to the history of disabilities topic are her art displays. “Witnessing” is a quilt project emphasizing forgotten acts against individuals with disabilities and highlighting the importance of not forgetting those who have died because not enough care was shown them as members of society. These artworks remind us that, although we have come a long way, there are still individuals and children forgotten because disabilities are misunderstood by mainstream society.
The harsh realities expressed in her artwork ignite a passion that overcomes us with a need to be active and compels us to fight against these continued contradictions in treatment of human beings. We need to remain vigilant to the inadequacies of our current system and demand changes be made. Although time may be a necessity, and bureaucracy unavoidable, letting down our guard as activists for disability rights can cause unneeded suffering and even loss of life for some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
O’Toole, Corbett Joan. Corbett Joan O’Toole: Queer Disabled Elder. https://www.corbettotoole.com/.