Disabled Activist Recalls Movement History

by Lainey Feingold on June 18, 2015

Corbett Joan OToole is a disabled activist out to change hearts and minds with her powerful new book, Fading Scars / my queer disability history. OToole’s unrelenting challenge to the status quo begins with the cover. The book’s structure and the author’s committed use of plain language are further clues that this is not your typical essay collection, memoir or history book, although it easily falls into all these categories.

Past the cover and accessible style lies content crying out to be read. This is history and perspective most people — disabled or not — are unfamiliar with. You may not agree with everything in this book (I didn’t) but the important information gathered in these pages deserves to be read, shared and preserved. OToole’s book is an invitation to disabled people everywhere to write their lives, record their stories. She has shown the way.

Lessons on the cover

On first glance I didn’t fully understand what I was looking at when OToole’s book arrived in the mail. A Facebook exchange with the author explained the compelling image of (and by) photographer Chun-Shan (Sandie) Yi. It is “a close up of a light brown-skinned body from just below the belly button to the top of the thighs,” OToole began. The focal point is the subject’s “two hands with two fingers each [that] are crossed at the wrist and hang down in front of the shorts.” The shorts are cutaway to show the “faded scars” at each hipbone.

One of the many ideas in the book is that disabled people are only accepted by mainstream society (and, OToole contends controversially, even by some disability rights groups) if they are “disability pretty.” This is a group the author defines as people who “nearly always have fluent speech, non-shaking bodies, appear middle class and are usually white.” Two brown hands with two fingers aren’t society’s standard idea of pretty. OToole’s messaging begins with her choice of cover photo.

The subtitle, “My queer disability history” reflects another running theme in the essay collection. As she explores how the disability rights movement grapples with sexual identity and how the queer movement recognizes disability, OToole shines a light at the intersecting edges of two progressive movements. But hers is not just a political analysis. OToole has personal relationships with and in both movements. Her from-the-heart sharing of her own experiences is the memoir part of the book. It is not just a history. As the subtitle tells us it is “my queer disability history.”

The last important message before you even open the book is the name of the publisher, appearing on its spine and back cover. (I know about spines and back covers because I read the paperback format. There is also a Kindle edition and the book is in BookShare, a resource for accessible books for people with print disabilities.)

Fading Scars is one of three inaugural publications of the newly formed Autonomous Press, also known as Aut Press. The press’ mission is summarized on the title page: “Owned by disabled workers, Autonomous Press seeks to revolutionize academic access.” OToole is one of the founding members of the press. Unaffiliated with an institution of higher education, she identifies as an “independent scholar.” Her scholarship is accessible.

Book structure / reader empowerment

Fading Scars is written in plain language. As OToole explains in the introductory essay, the point of plain language is “to make sure that the words are written in such a way that all the people who want to be part of the conversation can be.” The author is passionate about its importance, going so far as to argue that “[c]hoosing to not write in plain language is just like putting steps in front of a building instead of a ramp.”

OToole succeeds in building her ramp and the book is easy to read. In addition to plain language, chapter structure contributes to accessibility. Each essay begins with a short summary and ends with sections titled Just the Facts Ma’am and Resources. The resources are a treasure trove that continues, in each instance, on OToole’s website.

Another easy reading tool is the decision to put footnotes at the bottom of each page. I appreciated that, and admire that the publisher was willing to cast aside standard convention which leaves me flipping to the end of most other nonfiction books for footnote information, or skipping the detail altogether.

The plain language structure contributes to the author’s urgent mission to spread the word of her disability experience and the disability movement’s history. “Read this!” the book seems to implore. It sends a not so subtle message that its stories are too important to miss, that disabled lives hang in the balance.

Stories and History

Each of the thirteen essays in Fading Scars covers one aspect of the disability experience, and each chapter stands on its own (which sometimes results in repetition of basic facts). The title of the first chapter, Celebrating Crip Bodyminds, indicates common themes: this book is a celebration of all things disabled — art, sport, dance and, above all, community. “I love being disabled,”

OToole writes in Chapter 1, and that passion shows throughout. She bemoans disabled children growing up without adult disabled role models. She yearns for universal recognition of the breadth of human experience, a rewriting of the idea of normal.

Chapter 1’s title underscores that language is important to OToole. The word bodymind, a term I had not encountered before picking up this book, is used throughout. An early footnote explains the word’s origins in an article in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy and OToole’s decision to use the line-blurring phrase.

She is equally careful with a host of other terms, and even with capitalization, explaining her decision to capitalize Disability Studies as a way of emphasizing the importance of the scholarly field. Plain language means she explains all her choices to the reader.

OToole has personal experience with significant events in the disability rights movement and weaves that experience with other historic facts. The book covers the founding of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living and the April 1977 sit in by disabled people at the San Francisco federal building to protest the government’s failure to enact regulations to implement section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

OToole is proud of the movement’s leaders and its foundational organizations but not shy when she thinks things could have been done differently. Chief among her concerns is the lack of diversity in leadership and the writing out of history of non-white activists.

OToole participated and helped organize the first Queer Disability Conference in 2000 and the International Disabled Women’s Symposium in 1995 and there is a chapter devoted to each. A sobering essay on rampant violence against people with disabilities and chapters on being a disabled parent (OToole is one) and parenting disabled children (she does) are among the other topics tackled.

I am always surprised at how little people without disabilities (yet) know about the vibrant history, culture and civil rights struggles of the disability rights movement.   This book can change that. And Fading Scars is a clarion call to disabled people everywhere to take up pen, computer keyboard or voice recognition software and begin today to preserve their stories. I hope it happens.

 Lainey Feingold is a disability rights lawyer in Berkeley California. More information at http://lflegal.com. Find her on Twitter at @LFLegal.

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