Scars Not All of Us See: Corbett O'Toole's Fading Scars

Day 46

I put Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History by Corbett Joan OToole on my list on the recommendation of a friend and because I wanted to learn more about recent disability history in the US. I have at least a 101-level understanding of older disability history thanks to Kim Neilsen's A Disability History of The United States, but it's still an area I have very little background in, despite having learned some things from friends who have disabilities, work in disability advocacy, or both. Fading Scars is a book of essays that range in scope from autobiographical to organizational to societal, often varying within a single essay. Read sequentially, the book is a powerful journey through some of the greatest pleasures and hardest injustices facing some disabled people today.

O'Toole mixes a conversational tone and academic rigor skillfully, although not seamlessly. Her weaving of source materials and analysis doesn't always flow as easily as some major writers of popular history or sociology, for example, but it does the job well. She stops the narrative flow frequently to talk about her sources of information and methodology, which is important. The book grapples with the way disability stories are told and the way disability history is told (or more often untold). It identifies many of the problems with the way nondisabled people tell these stories and the way disability communities have historically silenced marginalized groups such as disabled people of color and disabled queer people. This book provides a good general introduction to all of these topics.

Fading Scars is written, as OToole explains, with accessibility for all readers in mind. I wasn't sure how a book written largely using academic methods and explicitly for a variety of reading levels and educational backgrounds was going to go. I try to make what I write for museum exhibits as accessible as possible (as do many others) but because of the other needs of the museum environment, there's a level of detail and analysis they generally don't delve into. OToole's modifications to typical essay style turned out to be pretty unobtrusive. For example, she occasionally includes “ibid.” in the footnotes, and the first time she does so in each essay, it's followed by a parenthetical “This means see previous note.” The essays all begin with what an academic would call an abstract, although with even more straightforward language than the rest of the essay. A few times, reading on autopilot and sucked in by the storytelling quality of the book, I was tripped up by what I thought was a lot of repetition in the first few pages of an essay. Then I remembered that there was a summary for people who were skimming the book looking for sections that interest them the most, especially for people who for any reason can't often read for long periods of time.

In some ways, the style tells you what you need to know about the book – it's accessible and approachable, while also unapologetic about the fact that it might startle nondisabled readers who aren't very familiar with disability communities. But I'd be doing OToole, the book, and the people she writes about a disservice to end my review here. This book helped me recognize that people with disabilities are made invisible, silenced, and kept out of public life to a much greater extent than I knew. OToole gives powerful statistics and anecdotes about people being denied basic healthcare, educational, and family services, today as well as in the recent past. Some of this is due to ignorance on the part of the nondisabled people involved, but a lot of the ignorance is systemically perpetuated. It comes from school districts that hire special education teachers with paternalistic attitudes instead of people plugged into disability communities, and from state laws that make it likely for disabled parents to lose custody of their children, for example.

In my own work as a history writer and museum curator/educator, I appreciate the reminder that I always have more to learn. Modern museums often congratulate ourselves on being welcoming to all, but we often fall short in the areas of access and diverse representation in our exhibits and staff. OToole even mentioned a time that she noticed a two small statues in a museum, one labeled as an "imaginary figure" and the other as a nondisabled child, when it was clear to her that they portrayed people with specific disabilities. I'm not saying that every curator needs to have the detailed knowledge that OToole has, but that we should remember to ask around before labeling a depiction of a body as "imaginary." The book also discusses the problems of huge gaps in the historical record relating to disabled people, as well as the struggles that disability scholars have had in getting disability studies and disability history recognized as legitimate areas of study.

Despite all of the very emotionally heavy content and serious reminders, Fading Scars also has bright moments and funny moments, making it enjoyable as well as incredibly useful. I recommend it to people who are new to the world of disability studies and people who are well-versed in the facts but want to hear some good stories.

Image shows a person pointing with one hand to a sign which reads "Musee de L'Armee Access for Diseabled Persons," and pointing with the other hand to the stairway the sign refers to.
You can't have an "accessible" entrance with big stone steps. In this picture, my friend Nassira Nicola, herself a disability advocate, points out the contradiction (and misspelling!) at the entrance to a museum. 
Photo by Jeremy Kisala.

Postscript: Two notes on language

1. There is a healthy debate about whether to use "person-first" or "disability-first" language when writing about disabilities -- ie, "people with disabilities" or "disabled people." It varies by personal preference, by disability, and by region or country. The main consensus is to use the preferred terminology of the person you're writing about, where possible, and the group you're writing about failing that, which makes it harder when writing about disability status as an overarching umbrella category. In this review, I followed what OToole had done in her book as best I could.

2. In Fading Scars, OToole follows each first mention of a person with a note describing them as disabled, nondisabled, or unknown, the last meaning that they haven't disclosed publicly in either direction. She addresses her reasons and the complexities of this practice in two of the essays. I considered adopting the practice for this particular review, writing "Corbett OToole (disabled)" for example, but decided against it. First, I didn't want to derail the post with a rehashing of the reasons to make these notes, especially since OToole does it better. Second, I don't do that in my other posts and consistency often makes for better reading flow. Third, I don't know whether I consider myself disabled, and if I did this I'd need to choose a label at least for this post. My mild-to-moderate, currently very well managed clinical depression is a nuisance, but I don't usually think of it as a disability. Yet, I know I owe a lot to people who have fought long and hard to reduce the stigma of mental illness, making it possible for me to have sought out the help I have needed. I don't want to appropriate the language of disability for myself since I have so many advantages most disabled people don't, nor do I want to negate the experiences of people living with depression that is unequivocally a disability for them. In the few years I've had this question, I've been content to be undecided about it, and I'm continuing that now.


  1. Ooh, we should talk depression and disability identity stuff some time! (Also, I apparently really need to read this book.)

  2. Yes, and yes. I have a lot more thoughts on depression and disability, and I'd love to hear yours. And yes, I think you'd enjoy this book (although I want to see your facial expressions while reading about the influence of 70's youth/activism culture on the early years of Berkeley's CIL, if you haven't already heard those stories.)


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