Disability rights advocate Donal Toolan will be remembered for changing perceptions

Remembering Donal Toolan, Steve Daunt reflects on how Donal shaped the way Steve and many other disabled people viewed themselves

I’m trying to think of the first time I met or saw Donal Toolan. I was sure it was it some demo or protest but then it came to me. He was on stage playing the Innkeeper in a very raucous university drama society version of the Nativity.

I had heard about the ‘guy in the wheelchair’ who could party with the best of them and there he was right in front of me. 1989? Seems like yesterday.

Monday... It’s a day anybody who knew Donal wished never happened as the man we knew and respected died. A chasm opened and we are left feeling alone.

Donal was a life force. Anybody who reads the Undaunted column will know I can go on and on about disabled people’s rights. Before  I met Donal, I hadn’t thought about such things. Yes, like many other disabled people, I was rightly peed off with some of the crap we put up with but I wasn’t ready to ‘name’ the sense of hurt and lack of rights.

Donal changed all of that with the use of one simple word.

In 1990 he called a meeting to begin the establishment of the Forum OF people with disabilities. It wasn’t going to be FOR disabled people. It was a group OF disabled people, no matter what ‘impairment’ they had. No false barriers between us. We were a united group seeking all our rights.

Younger readers might be thinking ‘so?’ but you have to remember that, back in the day, your wheelchair, your wobble, your deafness your blindness defined you. Donal changed that. He brought us all together with the aim of asserting our rights as Irish citizens.

There are so many memories from those early years but a joyous Saturday morning on Grafton St stands out... Donal had the fiendishly simple idea of handing out red balloons with the simple message ‘Rights not Charity’ printed on them. Everybody loves balloons and people flocked to us. Their initial reaction was to offer us money in exchange. By explaining why the balloon was free, we engaged people. Their perception changed.

That was Donal in a nutshell - creative, kind and politically astute.

So many memories, all tinged with a smile and one of his many accents.

Goodnight, sweet prince.

Thanks for everything you gave to Ireland.