IN A WORLD AT WAR, DISABILITY RIGHTS MATTER MORE
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
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