Last month the Independent Living movement lost one of its champions and directors of the Dublin branch of the European Network on Independent Living – ENIL, our dear friend, Donal Toolan. Donal was a man of many a great talent, – a playwright and actor, acclaimed journalist, and one of the most prominent disability rights activists of Ireland and internationally in this time. He dedicated his passion for equality and artistic zeal to a lifetime struggle for justice for all. As part of the ENIL Independent Living Heroes article series, this month we pay tribute to his memory and life.
Born in Co Mayo, Ireland, Donal was a wheelchair user from early childhood. Already in his twenties he gained widespread respect as a disability rights campaigner. In his mission he joined Martin Naughton and fellow activists, founding a number of advocacy groups, including the Forum for People with Disabilities (FPD), which he directed. In 1991 Donal was the first disabled person to be nominated as a member of the Council of State, an advisory body to the President of Ireland. In his efforts towards a rights-based legislation for disabled people, he was engaged in the negotiations with the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities in 1993 and the process leading to the Disability Act 2005 in Ireland. Internationally, Donal Toolan represented FPD, acting as an observer to the UN in the drafting of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). As part of his broader commitment to Human Rights causes, Donal served as a Board member of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) and was involved in the UN Association of International Service, and the European Anti-Poverty Network. Irish President Michael D. Higgins praised Donal Toolan’s committed advocacy for disability rights legislation and his immense contribution to Irish public life.
As a journalist, actor and playwright, Donal’s work strongly complemented his human rights activism with its heavy focus on raising visibility of disabled people and awareness on issues they faced. As ICCL Executive Director Liam Herrick put it “Through his activism, his journalism and his artistic expression, Donal helped change the landscape for disability rights in Ireland in a profound and lasting way.” Highlights of his broadcasting career were the RTÉ Radio series “Not So Different” and the RTÉ television documentary series “In from the Margins”. For the latter, Donal received a Jacobs award and the National Broadcast Journalist of the Year prize. Seamus Dooley, Acting general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, credited Toolan as a ‘passionate advocate for equality: fearless, wise and funny’ and ‘a talented writer, actor and broadcaster’, who championed the rights of disabled people through his broadcasting career with ‘eloquence and courage’.
Making his first stage appearance in 1987, Donal Toolan’s acting career blossomed in the Dublin-based Team Theatre and Fishamble productions. He was featured in the one-man show Broadcast a during the Dublin Fringe festival, and the production of Swings and Roundabouts, touring with Team Theatre. Donal also toured in the UK with the production of Bent by Graeae Theatre and performed cabaret and musical theatre with the National Theatre Workshop in Belfast, Maine and East Hampton. He was featured in Inside I’m Dancing, a film about two disabled young men who challenge societal attitudes and institutional living for the pursuit of physical and emotional independence. Shortly before his death Donal played a leading role in Mainstream by Rosaleen McDonagh at Project Arts Theatre in Dublin.
Without a doubt Donal Toolan’s death is a huge loss not only to the disability community but also civil society at large. “Donal’s voice could be heard above all the others at the ENIL Freedom Drive singing “We shall overcome!” Donal was committed and used his talents from the arts, as well as his own experience of Independent Living to make a statement with authorities on the breech of Human Rights of many disabled people throughout the world. I highly respected Donal and will miss his voice at coming Freedom Drives, and in the fight for Disability Rights. May Donal rest in power!” – Jamie Bolling: Executive Director, European Network on Independent Living (ENIL)