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An Exhibit on Disabled Veterans at People Inc.'s Museum of disAbility

War and Disability

People Inc.’s Museum of disAbility opened its newest exhibit this past August. Titled War and disAbility, it focuses on the historical social perception, care and treatment of veterans who through their war experience are disabled. The exhibit examines in a timeline of military and medical technology, and the psychiatric effects of combat from the pre-Revolutionary War era to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with attention to contributions made by veterans with disabilities during times of national crisis.

Included in the exhibition are displays of material artifacts from the museum’s collection, such as rehabilitation booklets, postcards, and a litter used by stretcher-bearers to carry the wounded from the field. The Niagara County Historical Society contributed a Civil War era prosthetic leg that was found on a Lake Ontario beach in 1984.

Visitors will learn that American veteran’s compensation started in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1636 with lifetime care for those disabled while defending the colony, and further that in 1775 the Continental Congress, anticipating the need for a governmental institution to care for the wounded, established the Hospital Department of the Army and the Army Medical Regiment as the war against Great Britain commenced. By 1855 veterans with mental disabilities were treated at the Government Hospital for the Insane, later St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

Following the Civil War, the massive number of returning Confederate veterans with missing limbs occasioned the founding of the Association for the Relief of Maimed Soldiers in 1864. Twenty years later the first permanent Confederate Soldiers Home opened in New Orleans. After her harrowing service as a field nurse in the Civil War, Clara Barton, “the lady in charge,” as Union General Benjamin Butler once appointed her, established the American Red Cross in 1881, providing staff for hospitals and combat ambulance units.

By the end of World War I, the concussive effects of high explosives coupled with the ravages of trench warfare produced 69,394 documented neuropsychiatric disabilities in United States servicemen. For the first time a committed national effort to recognize disabled veterans was organized as the week of May 29, 1921 was declared “National Disabled Soldiers Week.” The first president with a physical disability, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected in 1933, though great effort was made to conceal or discourage public awareness of his polio-stricken legs throughout his three terms as commander-in-chief.

Carnage on a global scale produced numerous Congressional acts on behalf of World War II veterans’ rehabilitation, recovery, and maintenance, including the Disabled Veteran’s Rehabilitation Act of 1943 and the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944.

Independent efforts by groups of blinded and paraplegic vets formed national organizations in support of those specific disabilities. With the passing of Public Law 663, amputees and paraplegic vets were granted free automobiles retrofitted with hand controls. By 1948 the first competitive athletic event for vets with spinal cord injuries was held in England, concurrent with the 1948 Olympics. The year 1950 saw a movement of World War II vets working to implement barrier-free laws at the state and federal level. The Department of Veterans Affairs established a program to recognize and appreciate hospitalized veterans with a week-long “National Salute” in 1978. Following decades of war in Asia—the Korean conflict, 1950-1954, and the Vietnam war, 1959-1975—the government created the Emergency Veterans Job Training Act in 1983, reimbursing participating employers for training unemployed war vets for up to nine months or 15 months for veterans with disabilities.

Finally the exhibition moves to the infamies of our present era, as Congress in 1994 authorizes compensation to veterans experiencing disabilities contracted from undiagnosed illness developing from service in the first Gulf war. The chronology of American veterans’ progressive efforts to seek care and restitution from the government they serve concludes in 1997 with the Veterans Administration establishing, with Shriners Hospital, an agreement to care for children of Vietnam veterans who were born with spina bifida as a result of their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange or dioxin during their tour of duty in Southeast Asia.

Throughout all these accounts runs a single theme: Disabled veterans since the forming of the Republic have had to lobby, petition, protest, and even physically press for their rights as former serving members of the military, “at first without success.”

Their gains have been substantial but recent conflicts raise issues of veteran‘s cognitive impairment again, as a result of concussive force, which again, must be left to the oppressively imperfect science of legislation.

The War and disAbility exhibition continues though December 31.

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