Book Review: Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History (Autonomous Press, 2015)

Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History

Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History, Corbett Joan OToole, Autonomous Press, Fort Worth Texas, 2015.

“I’m now 63 years old, quite old for a person with polio. I often joke that, for those of us with lifelong disabilities, no matter our chronological age, disability adds 20 years. It’s very important to me during my elder years to ensure that the disability history knowledge that is locked in my head is passed on.”

In the central public discourse of American history, many stories are forgotten or left out – namely, of those who are not white, middle-class, male, and nondisabled. Due to the efforts and struggles of marginalized peoples, this trend has been changing. However, progress has been achingly slow, and oftentimes the histories of marginalized peoples are treated as simply “additions” to American history. It is ludicrous, for example, to conclude that the whole history of Black people or of women can be concisely compacted into a one-month celebratory period.

In truth, these histories exist as threads complexly woven into the broader American narrative. Yet some histories – such as that of disabled people – barely register to most in the grand scheme of things. The most that an elementary or secondary school student may be taught, if at all, is about the existence of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. With the dearth of such narratives, Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History is a crucial work in disability studies and history.

If one elder is a whole library, as quoted from a Chinook woman by Elizabeth J. Grace in the editorial forward of the book, then Fading Scars is a valuable and essential gift to the world, indeed. Written in autoethnographic style, OToole recounts a history of the disability rights movement from a unique perspective of her personal witness, augmented with information from other oral histories and additional research. First, it presents living history derived from the author’s memories and experiences, written in plain, accessible language. For example, in Chapter 6, “Dancing Through Life”, the author talks about her experiences with disabled poet Cheryl Marie Wade while working with disabled artist Patty Overland on a dance piece in the early days of the Axis Dance Company:

“Enter Cheryl Marie Wade (disabled), the original gnarly woman and a seriously kickass arts activist. Cheryl was an accomplished poet, playwright and performer/director with Wry Crips, a disabled women’s theater group. She had a strong artistic vision and wrestled us all into creating a polished, professional piece. One of our biggest challenges came from the lack of disabled professional dancers. In those pre-YouTube days there was no way for people to see the work that was being created, by us and other disabled artists. So we relied heavily on Cheryl to create that which was not yet imagined, a job she did beautifully.”

Secondly, this history reveals several points where the disability rights movement intersects with other social justice movements, with different groups providing support for each other. This occurs at several points in the book, including Chapter 2, “Flexing Power: San Francisco 504 Sit-In.” OToole describes the help and support that disabled protesters received from the Black Panthers during a 1977 sit-in of the San Francisco offices of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare:

“During the first week the FBI worked hard to isolate us from sources of support. I happened to be in the lobby the first night that the Black Panthers brought us dinner. The FBI blocked them and told them to leave. The Panthers, being extremely sophisticated about how to manage police interactions, merely informed the FBI that they would be bringing dinner every night of the occupation. They would bring the food, they would set it up, and they would leave. If the FBI prevented them from doing that they would go back to Oakland and bring more Black Panthers until the food got delivered to the protesters. The FBI soon backed down.”

Thirdly, the text is organized in such a way to be an easily consultable reference. The majority of the book’s chapters open with a summary of the contents and close with a “Just the Fact’s Ma’am” section which presents brief, essential facts from the chapter and a “Resources” section which lists the works cited in the chapter. This organization is a definite strength, making the text accessible to a wide variety of audiences, including: the casual reader, independent scholars, secondary school students, and academics, just to name a few.

While OToole admits that the history she shares in this text is through her own lens, Fading Scars is nonetheless an expansive and detailed text that adds significantly to the study of disability history. Along with Typed Words, Loud Voices and Defiant, this book is evidence of a strong and promising future for Autonomous Press as it works to help build disability and neurodivergent literature and studies in academic, education, and artistic arenas.

(N.I. Nicholson)


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