Corbett O’Toole on Enduring Activism: “Dancing for the Win”

I met Corbett O’Toole at TASH in Chicago. We hung out – we talked – she is fabulous – we quickly became friends. Corbett invited me to attend her talk to the University of Illinois at Chicago Disabilities Studies Doctoral Students – which she framed as a fascinating kitchen table talk of the history of disabilities activism in Berkley in the 1970s and the origins of Disabilities Studies and the 504 sit in. Corbett was present and involved during that time and continues her involvement with working for social justice and human rights to this day. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of Disabilities Rights and Social Justice Activism and is an amazing oral historian.

Here are my visual notes from her presentation at UIC:

Corbettvisualnotes.jpgCorbett has been doing this work for a long time… She was present and involved during early 1970s and continues her involvement with working for social justice and human rights to this day. Corbett is a treasure and conveys her encyclopedic knowledge with her amazing storytelling talents as an oral historian.

So that got me to thinking about how we work through the negativity and maintain a trajectory that supports activism for the long-term and helps us continue to work toward change. Being steadfast when it is not exciting and glamorous means we must make it a priority to find a balance and to take care of ourselves in the process… so we live to fight another day.

Sometimes social justice activism is exciting, but often it is just slogging hard work that requires perseverance, and lots of hope that – like the pebble in the pond – it will have a ripple effect and make things better.

Change is slow.

Corbett and I discussed this at some length…

I asked her if she would like to write something… and she agreed… and I am ever so grateful… and here it is…


Dancing for the Win

by Corbett O’Toole

Lately I have been playing (and playing and playing) Pharrell William’s music video “Happy”. It’s got a very catchy tune and a really wide variety of people each dancing for a few seconds throughout the video. It even has someone who looks like me – a larger than life woman in an electric wheelchair.

It’s my ‘go to’ song for dealing with the challenges life throws (sometimes with a very heavy object attached). I’m 62 years old. I’ve been visibly different all my life. And every single day that I leave my house, someone comments on my presence. I know it will happen and yet each time it’s like an irritating drop of water – drip, drip, drip. When I focus on it, I get discouraged. I start to think that it’s about me. Then maybe I feel a little sorry for myself. When will the world change? I yell to the sky.

Then I remember.


The universe is full of amazing, loving, kind people. And many of them are living with people who are visibly different too. Together we are fighting hard to change the world. It’s exhausting and depressing sometimes. I know, like many disabled people, I’ve been working all my life to help things get better. And it works.

When I was a child, I was literally not allowed to attend my local school because I walked with crutches. My mom just took me to the next school. My disabled daughter just graduated from high school and used an electric wheelchair and a computer all through school. Things got better.

When she was 3 years old, a filmmaker contacted us about being in their film, Mothers and Daughters. We said yes, and know what we did? We danced. Because no matter what others assume when they look at two people in wheelchairs, we knew who we are. We are dancers.

I’ve spent my life fighting and dancing alongside people who moved and thought and looked different. But I’ve never had as much fun fighting discrimination as I do hanging around Autistic people. My Autistic friends like Ibby and Alyssa move in such a lyrical way that I envy their fluidity and grace.

Plus they are kick-ass advocates. Smartest folks I know. And really really generous. I cannot keep up with them intellectually yet whenever I ask, they explain stuff to me. They can make social media be the real world – an enormously helpful skill for those of us for whom poverty and lack of comprehensive public transportation make going places a challenge.

Disabled people, and those who love us, spend our lives fighting to honor the beauty and diversity of the human race. Because we know that when people really get to know each other, we can create a society where all are included. But no matter how hard the fight, we always remember to dance.

Great social justice movements sustain themselves not with their anger but with their joy.


As we were finishing up our online correspondence to organize this guest post – I said to Corbett: “I am just listening to him (H) play his games online – he is socializing. Working shit out!! Laughing his head off – being a goof… It is lovely!!

Corbett: “These moments – where we are loving ourselves and our disabled family members – is to me the root of all our advocacy work – we don’t want to live in a world that cannot see how fabulous we all are – and we don’t want people hurt by ignorance and discrimination.

Me: “There we go!! I am stealing that quote!!!!! ^^^^ Keep talking! We will have the whole post beautifully situated in love and acceptance!


Thank you, Corbett ♥ CorbettOToole2014♥

Your friendship, your fabulousness, your commitment to social justice, and your willingness to share your perspective and experience are very much appreciated.

You can explore Corbett’s collection of writing and body of work on her website at:

Corbett’s oral history can be found at:

See also: My Plan B is… Stick to Plan A!!


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism (2014)


About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
This entry was posted in 504 sit in, acceptance, Activist, Advocacy, advocate, Autism, Berkley, Corbett O'Toole, Visual Notes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Corbett O’Toole on Enduring Activism: “Dancing for the Win”

  1. Pingback: #Crapcessibility | Thirty Days of Autism

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