UK Disability History Month 2014- War And Impairment
Five years ago, London-based Disability Rights campaigner Richard Rieser had a brilliant idea. He created UK Disability History Month- a month of events to celebrate disabled people’s lives and achievements while recognising the struggles we faced in the past. The Month runs from 22 November-22 December.
Last night in Central London, Disability Rights campaigners, disabled people, carers and allies gathered to celebrate the fifth anniversary of UKDHM at this year’s Launch event. As usually happens at these events, we ate good food, had great fun and met up with friends old and new.
However, this year, something was slightly different. This year’s theme was easily the most serious one in the history of this History Month. Because this year, UKDHM has decided to join the mainstream media in marking the centenary of the start of World War 1.
The ceramic poppies at the Tower of London- one for each soldier who lost their life in World War 1- were briefly mentioned tonight. However, one of UKDHM’s central themes ever since its creation has been ‘celebrating our lives’ and so rather than tributes to the dead, the Month will focus on the living- those countless soldiers who have survived war, but returned with impairments.
This year, the Month has been supported by Unite, the Union. It was Chaired by Sean McGovern, who represents disabled workers within the Union. Union member Diana Holland also spoke about how the Union supports disabled workers and their equal opportunities.
One theme that came up throughout the evening was how disabled soldiers were supported back into work after World War 1. It was as a result of their experiences that many of the financial benefits and work support schemes that disabled people enjoy today were first created. One other point that will stay with me was the story of how deaf people, newly returned from World War 1, were shot in the streets because they could not respond when asked to go to work! Today that seems shocking and would be illegal, which just proves how far understanding of disability has come in the last century.
Mo Stewart, a disabled war veteran who served in the RAF, spoke about the difficulties she faces today, now that working age disabled war veterans are no longer entitled to Disability Living Allowance for life. Although this was something they were previously promised in recognition of their services to the nation, she spoke of her disappointment at discovering that she will now have to apply for its replacement benefit, Personal Independence Payment, which has a 12 month waiting list, along with other working age disabled people. The promise of DLA for life now applies only to disabled war veterans who are no longer of working age.
Paula Peters of Disabled People Against Cuts spoke very well about her experiences working at the Ministry of Defence. She started this job the day Iraq invaded Kuwait in the First Gulf War. She explained how the role left her with mental health difficulties, describing particularly the guilt of knowing that her choices as a worker had led to lives being lost. She went on to describe the assessment process faced by disabled benefit claimants today and the difficulties she and her friends have faced as a direct result of this process.
John McDonnell MP, who is known for being a great supporter of disability issues, spoke about everything that he and others have been doing within and outside of Parliament to support disabled war veterans, disabled people in general and our causes and issues.
Arthur Torrington of the Windrush Foundation spoke about the experiences of Carribean soldiers during World Wars 1 and 2. As a British Asian, I have always had an interest in the experiences of ethnic minority soldiers, something which I feel is not covered often enough in the mainstream media. So I was particularly pleased to see this topic being included and covered.
Richard Rieser, Founder and Co-ordinator of the Month, gave an informative presentation about War and Impairment.
These events usually end with entertainment, however this year, we were instead shown a short, silent film by the disabled artist Katherine Araniello on disability and war. She then explained how making this film was a new experience for her, as when she started making it, she was just an artist who knew nothing about war. The film was interesting, and perhaps the lack of organised entertainment this time around was appropriate.
After all, there is nothing entertaining about war- or the impairments it causes to people, both on and off the battlefield.