Emerging From The Shadows: New Sounds Like Hate podcast episode tells the story of a blind former wrestler who fights to defend the suffrage of people with disabilities in Georgia
Growing up black and blind in a small farming town in Georgia in the 1960s, Gaylon and Stancil Tootle learned early on: Get up or the world will slow you down.
The brothers, who have the same congenital cataracts that blinded their mother, saw little more than shadows. Their father, Greeley Tootle, was also blind, he lost his sight at the age of 18. Their hometown of Glenville was separate, with a balcony in the cinema for black clients and a backdoor rule for black clients in business. At the town hall, everyone in power was white. In the fields, all those who carried watermelons, harvested onions and hung tobacco leaves were black.
But the Tootle family didn’t believe in living in the shadows. Greeley Tootle used his memory, intelligence and talent to perceive models to work in the fields alongside showy hands. At home, he taught the boys, as well as their four siblings, how to defend themselves. When Gaylon Tootle learned that a black boy at his school had been kicked from the school bus for fighting after a racial slur was thrown at him, his father successfully asked the school board to allow the student to take the bus.
When campaign season arrived, white politicians courted Greeley Tootle – and the votes he could bring them. When a black state senator came to town in 1976 to protest the inhumane conditions at a nearby prison, local leaders refused to speak to him. Instead, Tootle invited him to the family home, to meet with the black community.
Yet Greeley Tootle understood the limits of the house. When Gaylon was 6, his parents put him on a bus to Macon, Georgia, putting aside their desire to keep him by their side for the opportunity to provide him – and later his brother – with a life education. Georgia Academy for the Blind.
“They recognized that living in this small rural town would not help us,” said Gaylon Tootle, now 62.
He said his parents wanted the boys to be in a place where they could explore the world, learn braille and most of all learn to be proud of who they are.
“It was difficult. My mom cried when they put me on the bus. But my dad always stressed that this is not where you want to be. He was the driving force to help us get out of it. He always told us we could live the life we wanted.
Today, Tootle is living the life he wants. He has a marriage which he calls “a fairy tale”. He has children, grandchildren, and a career in advocacy. But his path has been uphill, his days filled with obstacles, and his experience sheds light on a new struggle as he fights for other people with disabilities whose voting rights are torn apart by a new law in Georgia. His story is one of those told in the first episode of a new season of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Looks like hate Podcast.
“Surgical cut” of rights
Tootle has harnessed his understanding of living with a disability to create a meaningful life. As vice-president of the Georgian branch of the National Federation of the Blind, he advocates for better educational opportunities for students with blindness and other disabilities. He is a freelance advocacy coordinator at the nonprofit Walton Options, which serves thousands of people with disabilities in 16 counties across the state. He speaks in forums across Georgia on the rights of persons with disabilities and has a long history of speaking out on social justice issues.
On Tuesday evenings, his brother Stancil, a full-fledged lawyer, holds a weekly internet forum on the issues facing people with disabilities. “Tuesdays with Tootle” has a loyal following and invariably Gaylon joins us.
But for the larger disability community, Tootle wants more. He firmly believes that the battle for civil rights transcends the boundaries of race, class, ability and economy. And he believes representation is at the heart of the solution.
These beliefs have led him to the center of the voting rights storm in his home state, where a tsunami of new voting restrictions enacted this year threatens to silence the political voice of an entire segment of society – people. who are daily confronted with the challenges of disability and who know that without real political representation, inequalities will continue to haunt their daily lives.
Georgia’s new voting law restricts early voting, removes drop boxes for collecting ballots, and provides no way for blind people to review their ballot selections without assistance. Among other things, it adds requirements that make it more difficult for blind people to fill out postal voting forms and postal ballots themselves. A provision that voters can no longer cast a valid provisional ballot if they are in the wrong constituency before 5 p.m. hits hard on voters with disabilities who may not know where to vote, especially given the frequent changes of last. minute in polling stations.
A widely derided piece of the law even prevents anyone, except election officials, from handing out water to people queuing to vote. All of this means hardship for around one in four Georgian residents – over 2 million people – with disabilities.
“These new laws is like the way they always did in the old South,” Tootle said. “It’s a subliminal, surgical cut of rights, and doing it under the guise of a smile. Politicians, they say, ‘It’s really not this, it’s that.’ They say that at the same time they are depriving people like me of their rights. “
These kinds of surgical cuts to the voting rights of people with disabilities are mirrored in other states. In Alabama, for example, mail-in ballots and apps are inaccessible to voters who are blind or cannot read print, violating federal law. Polling stations – including those made available for early in-person voting for absentees – also lack uniformly available and accessible ballot marking devices for voters with disabilities that federal law requires and for which the government federal specifically allocates funds.
The SPLC – along with the Alabama Disabilities and Advocacy Program co-counsel, LaBarre Law Offices pc and the law firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy – has filed an administrative complaint on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama, and individual plaintiffs asking the United States Department of Justice to investigate Alabama’s postal voting program.
The complaint alleges that the state violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by failing to provide a fully accessible mail-in voting program to voters who are blind or unable to read print.
“Every voter has the right to an independent private vote, whether in person or by mail, you have the right to vote for yourself without anyone knowing for whom you voted or for which party you choose to vote in the election. ‘a primary,’ Caren said. Senior Supervising Lawyer Broker for the Voting Rights Practice Group at the SPLC.
“If you are blind or unable to read printouts – which means you can’t hold a pen without help – and the voting system relies on a paper ballot, or a paper request for a ballot postal voting, which requires you to use a filling pen, then you must necessarily have someone else fill out your application or ballot for you or help you do it. This removes this privacy from your ballot. And that violates the law.
“Take him to the mat”
Returning to Georgia, Tootle puts the weight of his considerable standing in the community behind efforts to improve access for people with disabilities. He says 17 years of competitive wrestling, starting at the Academy for the Blind and then competing at state and national levels for the University of Georgia, where he majored in political science, taught him how to fight. .
“The fight for me was one on one, man against man, and I have always applied those lessons in my life too,” Tootle said. “Wrestling has taught me that I want to win every time. This means that if I apply for a job, if I feel like you mistreated me, if you don’t let me vote, I will take action.
Since the new voting restrictions became law, Tootle has worked tirelessly, like many in Georgia, to assess the implications of the law and ensure that voters with disabilities can still exercise their right to vote.
“We are working hard here in Georgia,” Tootle said. “We know what we’re up against. “
Leaning over a computer with oversized keys and a screen reader for the blind, he is on the phone daily and in consultation with other voting advocates, lawyers and politicians looking for a way forward. He called lawmakers, wrote newspaper columns and demonstrated in the streets.
He tried to testify in hearings on the legislation, but he and other disability rights activists said lawmakers they contacted did not answer questions about how to do it remotely . In June, he and other Georgia voting rights leaders met with Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss how to advance voting rights.
“It takes a lot of courage to stand up and speak, and he does so despite the personal challenges he faces,” said Poy Winichakul, lawyer for the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group, who filed a complaint against the SPLC. Georgia. on behalf of a coalition of civil rights organizations, including The Arc Georgia, which educates and advocates for people with disabilities.
“As a person with a disability, he talks about an experience that spans economic and racial lines,” Winichakul said. “Yet people with disabilities are systematically forgotten, if not completely ignored. This is exactly what Georgian law does. It ignores the unique challenges they face when voting, and it diminishes their fundamental right to vote. “
Toolle does not intend to be ignored.
To make his voice heard, he employs the same power that elevated him to leadership positions in high school and college – the same power that he used in civilian careers with the U.S. Army and the US Army. air and learned to pick tobacco, “like everyone else.” in his hometown.
“I’ve always worked, because my mom and dad taught me that,” Tootle said. “All we ever wanted was an even shot. If the playing field is level, we can do it. But we are probably at the most dangerous time of my life. We are currently at a critical juncture for voting rights. This thing is serious. These people are not ashamed of what they are doing. We take him to the mat. Losing is not an option.
Above, Gaylon Tootle, vice-president of the Georgian section of the National Federation of the Blind. (Credit: Dustin Chambers)