War is a Disability Policy Issue

When someone thinks of a typical disability policy issue, topics that come to mind probably include benefit programs like SSI, anti-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act. Maybe even building codes that require accessibility features like ramps with a certain slope, or a certain ratio of accessible parking spots in a lot of a given size.  It’s not likely that most people think of foreign policy at all and it’s VERY unlikely that someone thinks of war. We should.

Wars abroad should be at the top of any disability policy agenda.  The reason is simple: wars create disabled people.  There are the disabilities we can see like amputated limbs and spinal cord injuries.  There are also, of course, brain injuries, which were common among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have never been anywhere even resembling combat, but I imagine almost anyone experiencing that level of violence, as a soldier or a civilian, would have at least some symptoms of PTSD.  In response to all the above, many folks that have been through war also develop addictions, which are arguably a kind of disability themselves.

Now, let me clear.  I don’t think disability is a bad thing.  I think my life is a whole lot more interesting than it would have been if I had been non-disabled. Honestly, there are several important ways my life has been improved by my disability.

While I like being disabled most of the time, I can also see how someone would dislike becoming disabled.  Philosopher Elizabeth Barnes points out how one can consistently believe that it’s not bad to be disabled but that it can be bad to become disabled, both at the same time. Part of her argument for this has to do with what are called transition costs.  Transition costs are the difficult price we pay for any major life change.

Take moving, for instance.  It’s not fun. It’s inconvenient and stressful and something people only move willingly when they believe it will be worth it.  Maybe all that hassle will be justified by a better paying job in a different city or the chance to move in with the love of your life. Now, imagine moving for no particularly good reason.  Maybe the house you are moving into is about the same as where you currently live in the ways that matter to you (size, price, location to amenities, etc.). Maybe the city you are moving to doesn’t offer anything special that you don’t already have (a comparable job, equivalent entertainment options, the potential to form a comparable friend group, etc.).  Even if the place you were moving to wasn’t bad, you still wouldn’t do it because of the transition costs.  Becoming disabled is sort of like moving in that way.  It’s not necessarily bad, but it does require you to pay these transition costs that hardly seem worth it to most people. 

Now, imagine being forced to move. Someone doesn’t even let you decide whether paying the transition costs of moving is worth it.  They just make you do it!  Moreover, they force you to do it in a really terrifying way and you have no idea what to expect from life when you get to wherever you are moving to because you have never been there.  It may be a very interesting place with lots of unexplored opportunity for you there, but that doesn’t mean it’s an experience you should have to endure.

Even this analogy to being forced to move doesn’t even come close to describing what it must be like to become disabled due to war.  Yet, the analogy at least offers a way of thinking about why someone like me might believe that being disabled isn’t bad. Still, we ought to do all we can to prevent more disabled people from coming into existence via bullets, grenades, and missiles.

Of course, this discussion hasn’t even begun to touch upon our country’s shameful history of failing to support people that become disabled through this kind of violence. Even after the transition costs are in the rearview mirror of the U-Haul you are driving to Crip Town, it can be brutally difficult to live in an ableist society without the kinds of access and support needed for basic survival.  In my view, ableism is what is most fundamentally at the heart of the crisis we see continue for veterans who are homeless or, even worse, suicidal.

So, as we see the news reel come in from Eastern Europe, let us remember that war is a disability policy issue.

About Joe Stramondo: Joe is an assistant professor at San Diego University and is extremely active in the disability community. Joe uses an Edge 3 Power Wheelchair to maintain his mobility and independence. In his spare time, Joe strives to be the best father he can to his children. Click here to learn more about Joe.