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Gaylon Lee Tootle: Light Bearer and Hero of the Disability Rights Movement

September 18, 2023

Editor’s Note: This guest blog was authored by Jessica Mathis, executive director of Mixed Greens Savannah and in partnership with the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and REV UP Georgia. State Voices is grateful to Mathis and the AAPD for sharing this piece. 

By Jessica Marie Mathis

In my last piece, “Honoring the Heroines of the Disability Rights Movement,” I wrote about path-breaking women with disabilities because oftentimes, women do not get recognized for their invaluable contributions to the movement. This piece is written in memory of an elder, leader, and friend of the disability rights movement in Georgia, Gaylon Lee Tootle (October 30, 1959 – September 10, 2022). There will never be another one like him on the planet.

By honoring both the heroes and the heroines of the Disability Rights Movement, we can build solidarity in our communities and affect greater change by challenging sexism, racism, division, and all forms of judgment and discrimination. All of our movement’s forerunners gave their time, advocacy, minds, and bodies for our cause and everyone is welcome.  

Like Gaylon always used to say, “I’m not going to give you my torch, but I will light yours.” This quote reminds us of three things:

The Torch

First, the torch’s tough wood is a symbol of strength and resiliency. Many of the history makers of the Disability Rights movement did their life’s work to combat the pain and injustice seen in the world. 

The fire in the torch represents life experience, the building of character, and leadership. As advocates, we must take time to reflect on our life experiences to help us determine where we would like to see change. The value of this reflection is seen in Gaylon’s life. Born blind in a small Georgia town, Gaylon grew up picking cotton and tobacco with his brothers and sisters. Gaylon’s parents fostered his love for learning by having him listen to audio books and playing music in the house. This life experience as a Black man who was blind gave him the strength (wood) and character (fire) to recognize the needs in his community and make things better for people with disabilities in rural communities all over Georgia.

Lighting Someone Else’s Torch

The second aspect that the fire represents in the torch is endurance. Like a fire that stays lit for long periods in both daylight and nighttime, the fight for disability rights has been long and it continues. When it comes to activists or social martyrs who have died, we often use the term ‘passing the torch,’ which means that we are passing the responsibility of creating change to the next generation. 

But what is different about passing the torch as opposed to lighting someone else’s is that passing it assumes that everyone has had the same struggles and will carry on the movement using the same methodology. But lighting someone else’s torch, as Gaylon said, takes into account that everyone comes to the movement in their own way with their own personal motivations for making things better.

When you “light someone else’s torch,” you give them the spark to lead their own unique path for liberation.  

Gaylon was the Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind of Georgia. In this role, he worked to improve and advance the lives of disabled people, and one of his greatest passions was achieving accessible voting rights through co-chairing the Rev Up Georgia Community Coalition along with Stacey Ramirez and others. 

As a leader and co-founder of Rev Up Georgia, Gaylon would get on Rev Up calls and motivate our team to keep up the good fight, make good trouble, and never be afraid to speak out. He was outspoken, strong, and a very passionate fighter for disability rights. 

One thing that we are constantly reminded of when it comes to torch bearing is that although the structure of the torch is strong, the fire can be put out, meaning that a person has passed away or retired from the movement.  In Gaylon’s case, his torch remains lit through an incredible legacy left in his community, movement, and the world.