Rising From The Shadows: New Sounds Like Hate podcast episode tells the story of a blind former wrestler who fights for the appropriate to vote for individuals with disabilities in Georgia

Gaylon and Stancil Tootle grew up black and blind in a small farming town in Georgia in the 1960s and learned early on: Get up or the world will hold you down.

The brothers, who have the same congenital cataracts that blinded their mother, could see little more than shadows. Her father, Greeley Tootle, was also blind when he was 18 years old, he lost his sight from being shot. Her hometown of Glenville was secluded, with a balcony in the cinema for black customers and a back door for black corporate customers. In the town hall, all those in power were white. In the fields were all black people, dragging watermelons, picking onions and hanging up tobacco leaves.

But the Tootle family didn’t believe in living in the shadows. Greeley Tootle used his memory, mind and talent for sensing patterns to work in the fields alongside seeing hands. At home he taught the boys and their four siblings to stand up for themselves. When Gaylon Tootle learned that a black boy at his school had been kicked off the school bus for fighting after a racist slur in his way, his father successfully applied to the school authorities to allow the student to ride the bus again.

When campaign season came, white politicians courted Greeley Tootle – and the votes he could bring them. When a black senator came to town in 1976 to protest the inhumane conditions in a nearby prison, local leaders refused to speak to him. Tootle instead invited him to the family home to meet with the black community.

Still, Greeley Tootle understood the limits of the home. When Gaylon was 6 years old, his parents put him on a bus to Macon, Georgia.

“They realized that living in this small, rural town wasn’t going to help us,” said Gaylon Tootle, now 62.

He said his parents wanted the boys to have a place where they could explore the big wide world, learn Braille, and most importantly, learn to be proud of them.

“It was hard. My mother cried when they put me on the bus. But my father always emphasized that you don’t want to be here. He was the driving force that helped us get out of there. He always told us that we can lead the life we ​​want. “

Today Tootle lives the life he wants. He has a marriage that he calls “a fairy tale”. He has children, grandchildren and a career that cares for people. But his path has been arduous, his days are full of obstacles, and his experience sheds light on a new struggle as he fights for others with disabilities whose voting rights in Georgia are being shredded by a new law. His story is among those told in the first episode of a new season of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Sounds Like Hate podcast.

‘Surgical Circumcision’ of Rights

Tootle used his understanding of living with a disability to create a life with meaning. As Vice President of the Georgia Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, he advocates better educational opportunities for blind and other disabled students. He is an independent advocacy coordinator for Walton Options, a nonprofit that serves thousands of people with disabilities in 16 counties across the state. He speaks on forums across Georgia on the rights of people with disabilities and has a long history of social justice issues.

Gaylon Tootle smiles outside his home in Augusta, Georgia.

On Tuesday evening, his brother Stancil, his own lawyer, is hosting a weekly internet forum on issues that people with disabilities face. Tuesdays with Tootle has a loyal following, and Gaylon is invariably involved.

But for the wider community of people with disabilities, Tootle wants more. He firmly believes that the struggle for civil rights crosses lines of race, class, ability and economy. And he believes representation is at the heart of the solution.

These beliefs have put him at the center of the suffrage storm in his home state, where a tsunami of new electoral restrictions passed this year threatens to silence the political voice of an entire society – people who face the challenges of disabilities on a daily basis, they know that without real political representation, injustices will forever overshadow their daily lives.

Georgia’s new electoral law restricts early voting, removes postboxes for ballot pickup, and does not allow blind people to review their ballot selection without assistance. Among other things, it adds requirements that make it difficult for blind people to fill out postal ballot applications and postal ballot papers themselves. A provision that prevents voters from casting a valid preliminary vote if they are in the wrong constituency before 5 p.m. hits disabled voters who may be confused about where to vote, especially given the frequent last-minute changes in polling stations .

A widely ridiculed law even prevents anyone other than election officials from distributing water to people who stand to vote. All of this means hardship for the estimated one in four Georgians – more than 2 million people – with disabilities.

“These new laws are just like they always did in the old south,” Tootle said. “It’s a subliminal, surgical cutting of rights under the guise of a smile. The politicians say, “It really isn’t, it is.” They say that they disenfranchised people like me at the same time. “

Alabama too

Such surgical cuts in the franchise for people with disabilities are reflected in other states. In Alabama, for example, postal voting and applications are inaccessible to blind or print disabled voters, which is against federal law. Polling stations – including those that are made available for personal advance postal votes – also do not have uniformly available, handicapped accessible voting slips, which are prescribed by federal law and for which the federal government provides targeted funds.

The SPLC – along with co-advisors Alabama Disabilities and Advocacy Program, LaBarre Law Offices pc, and the law firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy – filed an administrative complaint from Alabama on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind , and individual complainants asking the US Department of Justice to investigate Alabama’s postal voting program.

The lawsuit alleges that the state is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act 1973 by failing to provide postal voting programs that are fully accessible to blind or print disabled voters.

“Every voter has the right to a private, independent vote, whether in person or by postal vote, you are entitled to vote yourself without anyone knowing who you voted for or which party you are voting for in a primary,” said Caren Kurzer Senior Supervising Attorney for the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group.

“If you are blind or have a print disability – that is, you cannot hold a pen unaided – and the voting system is based on a paper ballot or a paper request for a postal vote that uses a ballpoint pen to fill out, then you absolutely need to get yourself from another Have someone fill out or help you with your application or voting slip. This removes the private nature of your voting slip. And that is against the law. “

“Bring to the mat”

Back in Georgia, Tootle puts the weight of his considerable community standing into efforts to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. He says 17 years of wrestling, beginning at the Academy for the Blind and then state and national for the University of Georgia, where he studied political science, taught him how to fight.

“Wrestling was one on one for me, one on one, and I’ve always applied those lessons to my life,” Tootle said. “Wrestling taught me that I want to win every time. That is, if I apply for a job, if I have the feeling that you have abused me, if you do not let me vote, then I will act. ”

Since the new election restrictions became law, Tootle, like many in Georgia, has worked tirelessly to evaluate the law’s impact and ensure that voters with disabilities can continue to exercise their voting rights.

“We work hard down here in Georgia,” Tootle said. “We know what we are dealing with.”

Hunched over a computer with oversized keys and a screen reader for the blind, he telephones and advises other proxies, lawyers and politicians who are looking for a way on a daily basis. He called the legislature, wrote newspaper columns and protested on the street.

He tried to testify about the law at hearings, but he and other disability rights advocates said the lawmakers they contacted did not respond to questions about remote maintenance. In June, he and other voting rights advocacy leaders in Georgia met with Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss ways to promote voting rights.

“It takes a lot of courage to stand up and speak, and he does it despite the personal challenges he faces,” said Poy Winichakul, an associate attorney with the Voting Rights Practice Group at the SPLC, which has filed a lawsuit against Georgia on behalf a coalition of civil rights organizations, including The Arc Georgia, that educates and advocates for people with disabilities.

“As a person with a disability, he speaks from an experience that spans economic and racial boundaries,” said Winichakul. “Yet people with disabilities are routinely forgotten, if not ignored at all. Georgian law does just that. It ignores the unique voting challenges they face and it diminishes their basic right to vote. “

Tootle has no intention of being ignored.

To be heard, he uses the same power that got him to senior positions in high school and college – the same power that he used in civilian careers in the U.S. Army and Air Force, and that he learned to use tobacco pick, “like everyone else” back in his hometown.

“I always worked because my mom and dad taught me,” Tootle said. “All we ever wanted was an equivalent shot. If the playing field is level, we can get there. But we are in what is probably the most dangerous phase of my life. We are at a critical time for voting rights. This thing is serious. These people are not ashamed of what they are doing. We bring it to the mat. Losing is not an option. “

Pictured above is Gaylon Tootle, vice president of the Georgia Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. (Image credit: Dustin Chambers)