Obituaries

Carrie Dearborn, 63, activist for the disabled and a sit-down comic

Ms. Dearborn was an occasional sit-down comic whose piercing humor offered a dose of reality to nondisabled people.
Ms. Dearborn’s piercing humor offered a dose of reality to nondisabled people.

When telling jokes on stage, Carrie Dearborn spoke deliberately, her ad-libs sidestepping words her mouth had difficulty forming. Gesturing with her one working arm while sitting in a wheelchair she called Gertrude, she paused now and then as her agile mind outdistanced the rest of her.

“My brainstem is injured,” she told an interviewer after one performance in the late 1990s. “It takes longer for messages to reach me — they have to go the long way.”

A stroke in 1981 placed Ms. Dearborn on a more challenging path through life, turning a ski instructor and computer operator into an advocate, writer, and occasional sit-down comic whose piercing humor offered a blunt dose of reality to “nons” — the nondisabled people upon whom she often had to rely.

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She called her first comic piece “My Ten Years as a Rolling Vegetable.” Her memoir “Quiet in the Tornado: A Disability Primer,” published several years ago, includes chapters such as “Wheelchair Flying: My Favorite Sport.”

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“Since I became disabled, I’ve had to make my life up,” she told Barbara Beckwith for a 1998 piece in Sojourner. “I’ve become very inventive.”

Ms. Dearborn, who had volunteered with the Boston Center for Independent Living and Health Care for All, died March 20 of pneumonia. She was 63 and had lived in Jamaica Plain.

“In the 1980s, disabled people were treated as though we were completely nonhuman,” she wrote in an essay published on the Wellesley Centers for Women website. “We were still riding in the back of the bus and were only 25 years out of back rooms, and it hadn’t yet become obvious that people of color were more rapidly becoming disabled than whites.”

That was the reality that awaited Ms. Dearborn when, at 27, she suffered a stroke due to an arteriovenous malformation — a tangle of abnormal blood vessels in her brain. She slipped into a coma and wasn’t expected to live, because few with that diagnosis did at the time.

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Life offered little when she awoke unable to speak, paralyzed, and heavily medicated with painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and pills to prevent seizures. “The meds dulled everything but the pain,” she told Beckwith.

From that foggy period of her life she emerged with resolve. “I was barely out of a coma when I tried writing a book. I wanted to create one for newly disabled people,” she wrote in the introduction to “Quiet in the Tornado.”

The book “would have short but interesting articles. Large print. Heavy paper,” she added. “It could lie flat, but it could be held easily. Or better yet, be on tape. (That was about the extent of technology for disabled people at the time. I discovered early that the technology was there, but ridiculously expensive.)”

After the arduous work of learning to speak, Ms. Dearborn went on to write for a number of publications, among them Lambda Book Report and Gay Community News in the LGBTQ community, the feminist periodical Sojourner, and disability rights publications such as New Mobility, The Disability Rag, and This Brain Has a Mouth.

Though she had been a writer before the stroke, she forged a different relationship with the pieces she prepared. “I can’t afford to be as adjectival as I used to be,” she quipped to Beckwith.

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“She had wanted to be a writer since she was a young child and kept working at it, even though it was hard to work a computer and find the money to keep it in repair,” said her friend Loie Hayes of Boston. “She was real persistent.”

Beckwith, who cochairs the Boston chapter of the National Writers Union, noted that Ms. Dearborn was an activist in that group, too. “She held us to our professed commitment to be accessible. That’s how change gets made,” Beckwith said. “We would no longer have an event that was not completely accessible to someone in a wheelchair.”

Carol J. Dearborn, known to all as Carrie, was born in Schenectady, N.Y., the daughter of Neil and Jean Dearborn. Her father was a metallurgist and her mother, after raising three children, worked as emergency room nurse.

While growing up in Cheshire, Conn., where she graduated from Cheshire High School, Ms. Dearborn took years of piano lessons and was good enough that “she played the piano without music,” recalled her brother Russell of Colorado Springs.

“She especially loved reading,” he added. “She would just burn through books and enjoyed amassing that knowledge.”

Ms. Dearborn also acquired a love of the outdoors early on. “Her earliest memory was of being with her father, at age 3, in the woods somewhere tracking deer, and hearing an adult deer stomping around,” Hayes said.

As a girl in Cheshire who spent vacations at Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire, Ms. Dearborn became a competitive ski racer. In the years before her stroke, she taught skiing at Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire and at Blue Hills in Canton.

She graduated in 1976 from New England College with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Moving to Boston, she wrote for the Women’s Yellow Pages, eventually began working with computers, and was midway through writing a novel when the stroke occurred.

“I was an athlete who couldn’t walk, a lover who couldn’t love, a writer who couldn’t write,” she told Beckwith.

In 1991, Ms. Dearborn participated in a nine-day State House protest with dozens of disabled demonstrators who held a sleep-in to protest Governor William Weld’s plans to reduce Medicaid funding. The cuts would have affected the ability of Ms. Dearborn and others to have personal care assistants, or PCAs. Weld relented and promised not to trim that funding, but Ms. Dearborn wrote in her Wellesley Centers for Women essay that funding and pay for PCAs “remained an embarrassment.”

Along with her activism, Ms. Dearborn was a committed gardener, sharing a Mission Hill community plot with Hayes.

“Every winter we’d be talking about seeds and what to plant, and every summer outside she’d be corralling someone to reach someplace she couldn’t reach,” said Hayes, who added that her friend was attuned to the smallest details that might affect the healing properties of herbs.

Those included “what time of day to cut the plants and whether it was appropriate to plant today or three days from now, depending on the moon cycle,” Hayes said. “Her father had taught her how to garden, so she cherished that hand-me-down from him.”

In addition to her brother Russell, Ms. Dearborn leaves her other brother, David of Grand Junction, Colo.

Friends and family will gather to celebrate Ms. Dearborn’s life at 11 a.m. May 12 in Old South Church in Boston.

Whether Ms. Dearborn was performing at a comedy club or fund-raiser, or just having a casual conversation, “she had a wicked sense of humor,” Hayes said.

Upon meeting Ms. Dearborn for the first time, some concluded incorrectly that she had significant cognitive impairments because the stroke had slowed her speech.

“Yes, she was speaking more slowly than other people do and struggled to put some words together,” Hayes said, “but then she’d whip out some zinger that would show you she was right on top of everything.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.