Laura Hershey's Whenever Web Column

Column from November 8, 2001

War and Peace Are Disability Issues

Copyright 2001 by Laura Hershey

Like most Americans, I've been struggling to figure out how I should respond to the crisis which exploded on our TV screens, and into our consciousness, on the morning of September 11. I think most of us have felt many of the same emotions: shock, horror, grief, compassion for the victims and their families.

Beyond those nearly universal, profoundly human reactions, our other responses may differ markedly, depending on who we are. United we stand and all that, but we don't all think the same way -- and we shouldn't. Even in the face of crisis, conformity is no virtue.

My own response is complex, arising partly from my membership in the disability community. I have paid close attention to the impact of the terrorist attacks on people with disabilities in New York and elsewhere. An uncertain number of disabled workers and visitors died in the World Trade Center, alongside thousands of their nondisabled counterparts. Disabled people living in Manhattan continue to face new barriers, disruptions in service, and aggravated health conditions as a result of the city's damaged infrastructure.

In addition to the needs of people who already had disabilities before September 11, it has been projected that an additional 2500 New Yorkers have or will acquire disabilities as a result of injuries, toxins, trauma, and stress related to the attacks. I believe this estimate is very low. These newly-disabled people will require assistance immediately and long-term.

People with psychiatric disabilities have faced particular difficulties in the weeks following September 11 -- some caused by the attacks themselves, and some by how the media is describing those attacks. Images of violence and chaos are exacerbating some individuals' conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. On top of that, politicians and reporters have repeatedly referred to the terrorists in terms which stigmatize mental illness -- "madmen" committing "insane, senseless" deeds. In fact, these were criminal acts, motivated by political and religious beliefs. Clearly the perpetrators were not people with psychiatric disabilities, and it bears repeating that people with such disabilities are NOT any more likely to commit violence than those without.

In the immediate aftermath, the media started raising questions about disabled people's place in society. One example: the suddenly-evident danger of modern skyscrapers. Many of us in the disability community are still haunted by the image of disabled people being left behind in the rush to escape the collapsing buildings. It's hard to blame anyone for this: Amidst the flames, smoke, and falling beams, the urge to save oneself is certainly understandable. At the same time, some individuals risked their own lives to assist disabled friends or strangers -- an equally natural reaction. Nevertheless, a few writers used the incident to suggest that wheelchair users and other people with limited mobility have no business working in tall buildings -- a truly bizarre conclusion which scapegoats this group of victims, while other victims are being honored. In a more reasonable response, some architects and advocates have begun discussing the need to develop new kinds of evacuation systems.

In talking about the issues facing a specific population, I do not intend to minimize the massive impact this tragedy is having, and will have, on everyone. I focus on this group because, all too often, disability issues are invisible on our national radar screen. And, with our nation now at war, those "invisible" issues will become relevant to more and more people, both in the U.S. and in any other countries involved in combat. War always increases the number of disabilities in any society engaged in the war.

Now that the United States has embarked on a war against terrorism, against Afghanistan, perhaps against other as-yet-undefined targets, the numbers of people with disabilities, and disabled people's problems, will multiply. War creates many disabilities. War also consumes massive resources, leaving little for social programs benefiting children, older people, disabled people, poor people, or society as a whole. When Bush says that all Americans will have to "make sacrifices," I feel a chill go down my spine. Who will be expected to sacrifice what? The "economic stimulus package," which the Bush Administration proposed while we were all distracted by the initial war reports, answers that question. Rich corporations will not be making sacrifices; instead, they will be handed large subsidies.

But war is expensive. Someone will have to bear the costs of all those fighter jets and mega-bombs. Who will pay? Not the wealthy contributors who helped sponsor the 2000 Bush victory, but other groups in society, who have less political and economic clout.

One Republican, U.S. Representative Curt Weldon, appeared on CNN only hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and asserted, "The first priority of the U.S. government is not education, it is not health care, it is the defense and protection of U.S. citizens." Later he added, "I'm a teacher married to a nurse -- none of that matters today." That attitude -- that the health and well-being of our citizens must suddenly take a low priority in the interest of financing defense -- is frightening indeed.

Yet the question remains: How does Bush plan to pay for the war? Will he close schools and hospitals, as might be inferred from Weldon's comments? Probably not: Large numbers of Americans would be directly affected, and would object. Instead, politicians may target the needs of minority groups, such as disabled people who use government-funded support services.

To pay for this expensive war, will the politicians dismantle the Medicaid system, leaving millions of disabled adults and poor children uninsured? Will funding for personal assistance services dry up, leaving us without the means to live and function in our own homes, thus forcing us into institutions, or even into the streets? Is the deprivation currently facing disabled New Yorkers just a foreshadowing of the situation which may soon face all Americans with disabilities?

And if we object, will we be accused of disloyalty -- charged with cowardice for not doing our part for the war effort? We can argue that government-funded disability programs provide essential supports that promote our integration and productivity. The alternative is to maintain disabled people in a state of expensive dependency. Funding independent living, vocational training, and community-based support services obviously makes better sense for everyone.

Logic, however, can fall by the wayside once martial fervor takes hold. As author Susan Sontag has written, "War-making is one of the few activities that people are not supposed to view 'realistically'; that is, with an eye to expense and practical outcome. In all-out war, expenditure is all-out, unprudent--war being defined as an emergency in which no sacrifice is excessive." I'm afraid that disabled people may be sacrificed at the altar of War.

Important domestic issues, like civil rights, are already being compromised for the sake of "the war on terrorism." For example, early in his administration Bush announced his intention to appoint Judge Jeffrey Sutton to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The disability community was outraged, because of Sutton's fierce opposition to the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws protecting disabled people's rights. Since early this year, disability advocates have led a strong grassroots campaign against Sutton's confirmation. Now, however, the Bush Administration is pressuring the Senate to quickly and unquestioningly approve all of the president's judicial nominations. Speedy action is imperative, administration officials insist, in order to implement new antiterrorism measures. If Sutton is confirmed, he will no doubt be generous in granting wiretap warrants; and he will also pursue a reactionary states'-rights agenda that will seriously jeopardize federal nondiscrimination legislation.

In talking about the war's impact on disabled people, my concern extends beyond the United States. Disability has always been a global issue. Disabled people exist, always have existed, everywhere -- in every village and city, in every province of every nation, in all ethnic groups, all socioeconomic classes. How many ways can I say everywhere? Disability is unequally distributed, however. It is more prevalent among poor families and poor countries.

Afghanistan has a disproportionately high number of disabled people, as a result of decades of poverty, civil war and government repression. Many of these disabled people will not even have the option of becoming refugees. Impaired in their mobility and strength -- and many lacking necessary equipment such as wheelchairs or crutches -- they cannot flee the bombs falling on Kabul and Kandahar.

Those bombs, inevitably, will kill and injure and displace large numbers of civilians. Therefore, I hope the U.S. will reverse its current course of action, which is both immoral and counterproductive. It will exacerbate global poverty and violence, and will fuel anti-Western fanatic movements.

Some people might ask: Why use this edition of Crip Commentary to advocate peace? Why not stay focused on the usual range of disability-rights issues? -- personal assistance services, the Americans with Disabilities Act, accessible housing, media images, and so on.

Others might suggest the opposite: In the current crisis, how can disability-specific issues still matter? In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the U.S. retaliation, and the ongoing threat of further terrorism, don't issues like ADA employment protections, and the Jerry Lewis Telethon, seem trivial?

My answer to both challenges is this: War and peace, violence and safety, poverty and justice, exclusion and access, bigotry and respect, segregation and integration -- all of these issues are intimately connected. I admire people who work for world peace in big ways. But equally important are the many, many people who work, in smaller ways, to promote equality, inclusion, and understanding in communities everywhere.

So let us not abandon the quest for disability rights, in all its manifestations. And let us not wage a "sustained, comprehensive" war (Bush's words) against the people of Afghanistan. The vast majority of Afghan citizens want peace. Most of them -- especially the women -- have even more reason to hate the Taliban than we do. Feminists worldwide have been urging the U.S. government to stop supporting the Taliban for a long time -- yet as recently as May, 2001, Bush gave the Taliban a gift of $48 million because they said they had "banned all drugs." How cruelly ironic it would be for our country to kill thousands or millions of innocent Afghanis now, after funding and supporting their oppressers for so long.

After the horror of September 11, many Americans felt hurt, angry, and vengeful. Those are understandable feelings -- but not a sound basis for foreign policy. A more lasting and urgent feeling, which I think we all share, is the desire to make the world a safer, more just and peaceful place. That goal should guide all our discussions and, yes, our debates about this nation's response to terrorism.

Our national will and our national resources should be committed to creating more justice, support, and peaceful opportunities for everyone. Such a strategy will do more to stop the spread of terrorism, and to advance freedom, than all the bombs in our arsenal.

For these reasons, I hope to see disabled women and men join with others in speaking out about the implications of U.S. foreign and military policy. And I hope that those of us who do speak out will not be frightened into silence, by being labeled unpatriotic. Have courage, my friends. Tell the truth about the history leading up to these attacks, and the possible consequences of military action. Do not let your government, your neighbors, or even your friends shut you up in the name of national loyalty.

Peace to all.

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