War and disability: a century of conflict

War and disability: a century of conflict

To mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, UK Disability History Month (UKDHM) explores the links between war and impairment. UKDHM co-ordinator Richard Rieser looks at the background.

The UK Disability History Month (UKDHM) is in its fifth year and was set up to celebrate disabled people’s lives and explore the history of negative attitudes and their consequences. Last year it examined the struggle for independent living, the threat caused by the government’s austerity cuts and its attack on the welfare state, the equality agenda and the UK’s international human rights obligations.

This year the focus is on the First World War. Every area in the UK was affected by people going off to war and coming back smashed to pieces and little help from the state. The whole emphasis was put instead on charitable donations.

Because of the disgruntlement caused by the way disabled veterans were treated after the First World War, a framework of support for disabled people – and not just veterans – began to form after the Second World War.

This framework, which included employment support, decent war pensions and state-funded rehabilitation, lasted 70 years until Labour and the coalition government began to dismantle it.

By understanding history, people can see that the austerity cuts and the attack on disabled people and working people in general is a political decision and has nothing to do with economics.

We are not arguing for any special treatment for disabled service people, we are saying the cuts are hitting all of us. They should be in common cause [with other disabled people] and saying, ‘This is not what should be happening’.

We are keen that individuals and groups across the country look at what happened to disabled veterans in relation to their families and local areas, and share those findings with UKDHM.

UKDHM also hopes to focus on how civilians have become more and more affected by wars during the 20th and 21st centuries.

We will also be collaborating with Anti-bullying Week 2014 which is focusing on the bullying of disabled young people. To mark this year’s theme, UKDHM has published a document with support from the union Unite, which is available on the UKDHM website and which examines the treatment of people who have become disabled as a result of war.

It suggests that although special pleading for charity for disabled veterans has often been common, attitudes and treatment towards disabled people are negative and discriminatory and in the longer run those with impairments created in war are also placed in the same negative category as other disabled people.

While the response of most of the more than two million disabled veterans from the First World War in Britain was to suffer in silence, a minority fought for rights rather than charity.

Ironically, the defeated Germans in the left-leaning Weimar Republic were treated much better than British disabled veterans and received state pensions, rehabilitation and retraining and an act which guaranteed the employment of more severely impaired veterans. The pension was given to dependents and all disabled people. The financial crash of 1929 led to this being withdrawn and many disabled veterans began to support the Nazi Party, only for many to be subject to the T4 ‘mercy killings’ of the 1940s.

As Viscount Castlerosse, a disabled veteran writing in the Sunday Express in 1932 put it: “Instead of demanding our rights we went hat in hand asking for charity. We ought to have gone bayonet in hand demanding our rights.”

The UKDHM document also looks at the creation of Remploy after the Second World War, shell shock, which was first recognised in print in 1915 and is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, and advances in battlefield medicine.

It concludes: “Although service people have been given a slightly better position than other disabled people, they are still subject to negative and oppressive treatment. Without their struggles, we would not have the anti-discrimination legislation we have today.”

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