The definition of who is and who is not “disabled” has never been clear-cut. Ongoing squabbles within the disability rights movement and in disability studies have never been adequately resolved. The definition of “disability” in federal and state legislation is also contested. Recent Supreme Court rulings have eroded essential parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), by, for instance, narrowing the definition of “disability” and exempting individual states from prosecution under the Act.
There are, of course, real life consequences to such definitional conundrums and nowhere is that clearer than in the recent Washington Post exposé on the situation of soldiers returning from Iraq. Who is and who is not given a “disability rating” by the Department of Veterans Affairs has a direct impact on the lives of these men and women. The VA, it seems, has been denying disability claims right and left, by either saying that an existing condition is instead a pre-existing condition (the individual had symptoms before Iraq and therefore is not entitled to benefits) or by saying that a condition is not serious enough to qualify as a “disability.”
Looking ahead, beyond qualifying for VA treatment and benefits, the definition of disability will matter in other ways. Journalists covering these stories may not be aware that these vets conditions may not qualify as a “disability” under the ADA.. If they experience discrimination in housing, education, or employment the ADA may not protect their rights.
The number of “Catch-22’s” (to borrow a term from an earlier war) that these vets now face and will face is enormous. Those of us who work in disability rights and in disability studies must take into account these new and confounding situations when we deliberate, as surely we will continue to do, about the definition of disability.
Take a look at the expose in The Washington Post. A number of articles about the situations of veterans returning from Iraq in the Washington Post over the last few months have been compiled into one ongoing special report.
It will be hard to contain your outrage when you read that Mologne House – a facility on the Walter Reed “Campus” where some of these men and women are warehoused for many months at a time - has a full bar, but that there is not one counselor or psychologist assigned there to assist soldiers and families in crisis — an idea proposed by Walter Reed social workers but rejected by the military command that runs the post.
Or when you read about Sgt. David Thomas, a gunner with the Tennessee National Guard, who spent his first three months at Walter Reed with no decent clothes (medics had cut off his uniform) and heavily drugged. He is missing one leg and suffers from a traumatic brain injury. When he was finally told by a physical therapist to go to the Red Cross Office, he was given a t-shirt and sweat pants. He was awarded a Purple Heart but had no underwear.
Or when you read about Dell McLeod of the 178th Field Artillery Regiment of the South Carolina National Guard who was patrolling the Iraqi border when he was smashed in the head by a steel cargo door (its hinges had been tied together with a plastic hamburger-bun bag) and knocked out cold. Army doctors are disputing that Dell’s head injury (including several cracked vertebrae) was the cause of a mental impairment. One report says that he was slow in high school and that his cognitive problems could be linked to his “native” intelligence rather than to his injury.
The broader the definition of disability, the more support and legal protection will be available to these men and women. Disability studies scholars and activists take note. We must rewrite and rethink “disability” to be as inclusive as possible.