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Colorado Quarterly Magazine 

"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"


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by Laura Hershey


 Having “liberated” (“conquered?”) Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military under the command of President George W. Bush now appears poised to engage in future hostilities — perhaps with Syria, or Iran, or even a nuclear-endowed North Korea. As a loyal citizen of the United States, I feel both responsible and betrayed. I did not vote for Bush; nevertheless he is “my” leader, and my representative to the rest of world. As a member of the global disability community, I am alarmed and I also feel a great sense of solidarity with disabled people worldwide whose lives will be forever changed, disrupted or ended, as a result of war.

As a disability-rights activist, I sometimes wonder whether I should be redirecting more of my advocacy energy toward peace. Can I justify spending my time advocating for the Colorado State Legislature to create better attendant care options, or organizing a leafleting campaign against the Hemlock Society, while war planners are setting their sights on the next target?

Instead, maybe I should spend all that time advocating for a more productive and humane U.S. foreign policy, and for a reduction in military expenditures.

Here are a few facts about war: There are more of them in the world today than ever before and they tend to last longer than wars of the past. Most victims of war today are civilians rather than soldiers. Many wars today are low-intensity conflicts – they use landmines or cluster bombs to wound and disable people rather than to kill them, because leaving large numbers of people disabled imposes ongoing costs on families and nations. The targeting of civilians means that women and children are increasingly vulnerable, and yet rehabilitation services often focus on men.

War simultaneously increases the disabled population and decreases the resources available to that population. “During conflicts, where there is so much destruction of life, society and the economy, communities rarely consider the care and protection of disabled people,” wrote Steve Harknett, then-editor of CBR News, in 2000. If and when the U.S. attacks another country, disabled people will probably suffer first, and most. This was no doubt the case in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Regardless of who starts wars, they inevitably deprive disabled people on both sides of rights, protections, and crucial supports. Poorer countries are less able to withstand the devastations of war, and therefore more likely to lose their disabled citizens to wars outcomes, including violence, displacement, starvation, and disruption of families and communities.

Even here, in the most economically and militarily powerful nation on earth, the disability community’s needs are already competing with military expenditures — and losing. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Bush Administration’s 2004 budget, which will, among other things, cut $94 billion from Medicaid (over ten years), $18.5 million from SSI, and $14 billion from Veteran’s programs.

These are some of the reasons why some disability-rights groups, including Disabled People’s International and Whirlwind Women International, have issued antiwar statements, and why many individual disability-rights activists — including myself — have joined in recent peace demonstrations.
Some people in the organized antiwar movement may view disabled people as mere props, illustrating the horrors of war. High-profile Vietnam veteran and antiwar activist Ron Kovic plays up his martyrdom, asking “What is worse than having to be paralyzed from your waist down for 34 years?” And I’ve seen posters protesting the war on Iraq, which feature a girl with one arm missing, looking dolefully at the camera, accompanied by a caption reading, “This young Iraqi child, already crippled in a US military attack, has the right to live her life in peace...” While I agree wholeheartedly that this child, and all children, have the right to live in peace, I worry that this imagery reinforces the idea of disabled people as cripples and as natural victims.
I think people with disabilities can offer a lot more to world peacemaking than simply serving as visual reminders of the effects of war. We can embody not just injuries, but values, strategies, solutions.

Just when I was starting to think that disability rights might be losing importance in the grand scheme of war and peace, I happened to reread a quote by Not Dead Yet founder Diane Coleman. “People with disabilities have an opportunity to lead society from the isolation and despair of today into a renewed recognition of belonging and community for all.”

We can’t pass up that opportunity by backing away from the movement to value and protect disabled lives, and to create a more just, accessible, inclusive and supportive world. In a world at war, disability rights may matter more than ever.

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