I still have a few minutes left of Veterans Day, Armistice Day, Rememberance Day, or whatever you call it in your neck of the woods. My thanks and good wishes go out to all our troops here and abroad, and to all those who have been injured defending us. I hope that all appreciate your sacrifices, and that you are able to get what you need when you need it.
People with disabilities have an interesting relationship with war and the military. One obvious reason is that war tends to make a lot more of us, especially as medical technology has improved. German veterans blinded in World War I began using guide dogs in the 1920s. World War II sparked the American disability rights movement in a lot of ways; people who earlier in history would have died of their injuries survived, returned home, and attempted to rebuild their lives. They had medical, housing, occupational and financial needs, among others. They needed rehabilitating, which hadn’t really been an issue back when nearly everyone who was injured at all severely died. Society had to start addressing – or willfully not addressing – where people would live, how they would have access to buildings, how they would support themselves or be supported, what assistive technology needed to be created and how it would be distributed, and plenty of other huge elephants in the proverbial living room.
The National Council for Homeless Veterans estimates that in the US, one-third of all homeless men are veterans, and almost 400,000 veterans will be homeless over a given year. That’s awful enough on its own, but as it turns out, many of these veterans are on the street because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological disabilities, as well as substance abuse problems (which often start out as coping mechanisms for the PTSD). Lots of them have other kinds of war-related disabilities as well. They’re on the streets because, despite the best efforts of the VA (about which I’m sure folks have plenty of opinions), not everyone is getting or able to get services. About nine out of every ten homeless vets received honorable discharges. They’re still alive, yes, but they really have sacrificed everything for their country. We spend a lot of money getting people into this predicament, and the honorable thing to do is to make sure we take care of them afterwards with comprehensive and compassionate community-based supports.
Several service animal organizations, remembering their roots, focus special attention on newly-disabled veterans returning from war. Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc. has created the VetDogs program to provide guide and service dogs for wounded soldiers returning from Iraq, as well as therapy and assistance dogs for military hospitals and rehab centers. They have even sent several therapy dogs to Iraq to work with the troops there. Canine Companions for Independence has a Wounded Veteran Initiative, and NEADS, Inc. provides Canines for Combat Veterans.
Assistive technology often has its beginnings in military-funded research. For one thing, the Department of Defense would like to keep its troops as healthy and functioning as possible for obvious reasons, and if they break you, they’ve got an interest in “fixing” you to whatever degree they can. For another thing, a lot of assistive technology has multiple purposes. Sure, there’s research being done right now on computers that can be controlled with brain waves, and those findings are of great interests to paralyzed vets and non-vets alike. But gosh, wouldn’t it be awfully handy for soldiers to be able to control equipment, weapons, whatever, in ways that are undetectable to anyone who isn’t, well, a mind-reader? Speech synthesizers are an everyday necessity for many blind folks, but they also make it a lot easier to get information from a computer while driving a vehicle, piloting an airplane, or sailing a ship. Not all military-funded disability research is related to assistive technology, though. I can’t find the relevant link right now (and it’s making me nuts, I tell you), but notices of DOD-funded grants for research on autism, of all things, have come across my desk a few times. If I speculate as to why, I’ll probably wind up having nasty dreams and everyone will comment that I’ve been readng too many sci-fi novels, so I won’t. (And if you have a reasonable explanation for this odd pairing of funding source and research topic, please do tell me).
Even the world of athletes with disabilities owes some of its organization to war and the military. Many wheelchair sports leagues recruit players from military hospitals and rehab units. The Paralyzed Veterans of America hold the National Veterans Wheelchair Games every year. And damned if some rather war-torn countries didn’t manage to send quite a few athletes to the Paralympic Games in Beijing this year. I saw Iraqis, Palestinians, and Afghans, among others competing for the gold, many with spinal cord injuries or missing limbs.
In many ways, war put people with disabilities where we are today. Sometimes it causes our ranks to grow, sometimes it sends its survivors falling through gaps and cracks in our society, and sometimes it’s the catalyst for the activism, technology and services that can give us freedom and independence.