The Making of a Disability Activist

By Dustin Galer, Foreword by Judy Rebick


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Beryl Potter was a reserved working-class mother of three living a decent life, or so it seemed, when a harmless slip and fall marked the unravelling of everything that she had known about herself and the world around her. Over the course of six years, she endured unimaginable pain. As doctors raced to save her life, her limbs and eyesight were taken from her one by one. In the span of a few years, she lost nearly half her body, her financial security, her home, her husband, and any semblance of a recognizable future.

A survivor of more than one hundred surgeries, a dangerous opioid addiction, and multiple suicide attempts, Beryl Potter devoted herself to bettering the lives of other people with disabilities and made a tremendous contribution to disability awareness from the 1970s to 1990s. In this unparalleled biography, Dustin Galer demonstrates how Beryl Potter seemed to crack the code of the social system that oppressed her. By wading into the weeds of her complicated life before and after her accident, Galer leaves readers with a complex portrait of a woman who defied and challenged gender and disability norms of her time, paving the way for disability justice.


“Long before the advent of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Beryl Potter did some of the most important pioneering disability rights activism. In this comprehensive and thoughtful biography, Dustin Galer resurrects a lost story of dignity, advocacy, and triumph. An important contribution to both disability studies and history, Galer painstakingly crafts a book that is both scholarly and personal.”

– Ravi Malhotra, co-author of Exploring Disability Identity and Disability Rights through Narratives: Finding a Voice of Their Own

“Dustin Galer’s storytelling is vivid and picturesque. His careful research and attention to detail transports the reader from the rooms of a 1920s Liverpool tenement to those in a Toronto lowrise during the 1980s. This book immerses the reader in Beryl Potter’s life and extraordinary story of personal transformation, ignited (for better or worse) by the effects of her limb amputations and vision loss. For anyone interested in the social history of the disability movement in Canada, this important memoir is required reading.”

– Donna Thomson, author of The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I’ve Learned from a Life of Caregiving

“In his captivating book Dustin Galer delves into the inspiring journey of Beryl Potter, a prominent Canadian disability rights advocate. Galer crafts a deeply moving account that lays bare Beryl’s remarkable life, showcasing her resilience and unwavering determination to pave the way for a more inclusive and just world. This biography stands as a powerful testament to Beryl’s transformation into a formidable activist, profoundly reshaping the landscape of disability justice.”

– Radu Harald Dinu, assistant professor of history, Jönköping University

“Beryl Potter is an activist in the truest sense. Her rich, complicated life provides important insights into the strength and fortitude required to obtain the most basic disability rights.”

– Nancy Hansen, co-editor of The Routledge History of Disability and Untold Stories: A Canadian Disability History Reader

“Dustin Galer’s organization of a vast array of rich material and his first-rate analysis conveys the life and times of controversial disability activist Beryl Potter with a familiarity and, at times, intimacy that will appeal to a wide audience. It’s an easy read in the best sense—accessible, highly informative, and enticing to find out what happened next.”

– Geoffrey Reaume, Critical Disability Studies, York University

“At a time when the predominant image of people with disabilities was just starting to shift out of asylums, hospitals, and the dark places where they had been relegated for so long, Beryl Potter laid the foundation for the inclusion movement in Canada. Beryl is a story of a life in which dreams were shattered by a disabling accident but that was re-built through the experience of being seen and accepted. Beryl chose dignity over pity and agency over being tended to. There are lessons here for us all, from school kids to politicians, about what it means to be truly complete, and what it will take to make inclusion a reality. This is an inspirational story, told in just the right way.”

– Michael Gottheil, accessibility commissioner, Canadian Human Rights Commission

“Dustin Galer gives life to the story of Beryl Potter. His weaving of her early years to the troubles of life in England and then in Canada is engaging and readers will find the story captivating. Like many of us, Beryl came into advocacy because there was no choice. Her life demonstrated that her choices may not have been perfect but she owned them. Who could ask for more?”

– Pat Danforth, current chair of the Victoria Disability Resource Centre and past executive member of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities

“Dustin Galer’s writing draws us into a historical narrative that is an intellectual tale and a pleasure to read. This book is a fantastic addition to the collection of anyone with a passion for activism, social justice, and disability studies. It’s also a great story.”

– Alexis Buettgen, adjunct faculty, Critical Disability Studies, York University; co-editor of Handbook of Disability: Critical Thought and Social Change in a Globalizing World


Foreword by Judy Rebick
Chapter 1 Liverpool
Chapter 2 Moonlight Flit
Chapter 3 War, Marriage, and Motherhood
Chapter 4 To Canada
Chapter 5 Joining the (Paid) Workforce
Chapter 6 An Ordinary Slip and Fall
Chapter 7 Six Years of Pain
Chapter 8 Addicted
Chapter 9 Taxi
Chapter 10 Life After
Chapter 11 Nostalgia
Chapter 12 A New Life
Chapter 13 Ability Forum
Chapter 14 Aware Bear
Chapter 15 Leaning In
Chapter 16 Transit Activism
Chapter 17 Life Another Way
Chapter 18 Rights
Chapter 19 Equity
Chapter 20 Access
Chapter 21 Order of Ontario
Chapter 22 Outside Looking In
Chapter 23 Off the Record
Chapter 24 Dennis
Chapter 25 Power of the Story
Chapter 26 An Ordinary Hero
Chapter 27 Politics
Chapter 28 Common Sense
Chapter 29 Order of Canada
Chapter 30 Final Stop
Chapter 31 Remembrance
Chapter 32 Aftermath
Author’s Note