Invalid Corps Kickstarter

Photo of a Civil War era Union Army button, brass colored, with engraving of an eagle
Hello, I'm back from my blogging break.

I have never done this before on my blog, and I probably won't do it often, but I strongly urge readers to support a Kickstarter fund raising campaign for a documentary film about the Civil War Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens. This filmmaker is Day Al-Mohammed, who is well known in the disability culture and activist community. I know her through the disability blogging and social media community. Day works in Washington, DC as a policy analyst, so this project seems like a personal passion for her.

The Invalid Corps was a section of the Union Army in the Civil War, manned by wounded soldiers. These are soldiers who chose to keep serving and fighting, even though they had permanent disabilities like amputations, blindness, and what we would today call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Let me quote Day on why this subject and project are important to her:

"Uncovering these heroes is a personal passion of mine. As a woman with a disability, and as a volunteer with the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, I feel a kinship with their need to serve and their desire to do what they could. After more than 15 years working on disability policy issues and working with youth with disabilities, I have seen how important it is to see people like yourself - models and mentors. Disability doesn't just exist today, but existed in the past."

"This is a lost history of men who sacrificed for their country and then chose to remain on duty; of men who chose to continue to serve with a disability. It is a story that should be told, not just from a historical standpoint but to understand and recognize the efforts of men and women in uniform today."

This project pushes all of my buttons, in a good way. I was a history major in college, and I am still a history buff today. In fact, the Civil War is one of my favorite subjects. And like Day, I am disabled, so this project has personal, crossover appeal for me.

I am making a pledge today. I hope lots of readers will, too, and spread the word, especially among your friends with disabilities and their families. As you probably know, you don't have to pledge a lot to make a difference. But do it now, because there are only 14 days left to go in the campaign, and the way Kickstarter works, they only get the money if they reach their $7,776 goal.


Memorial Day

Black and white photo of three men with disabilities, two in wheelchairs two missing arms,
National Public Radio

Memorial Day seems like a good occasion to think about the role of disabled military veterans not only in serving our country in war, but also in shaping the history of disability.

The First World War was one of the first wars to produce massive numbers of severely wounded soldiers who did not die soon afterwards. This coincided with other aspects of modernity, such as progressivism, which legitimized government action to address social problems, the professionalization of medicine and other related fields, which started to standardize care and weed out quackery, and advances in consumer technology, which enabled industry to meet newly identified needs more quickly than at any other time in history.

As this part of the NPR series points out, disabled veterans were still treated with condescension and pity, but at the time that was an improvement over how most disabled people had been perceived. As people started to think better of disabled veterans, it must have helped get people used to the idea that disability itself wasn’t the personal tragedy or societal threat it once seemed to be.


Veterans Day

My maternal grandfather, Carroll Dana Fearon, was an ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War, serving in the United States Army Ambulance Service. He was in basically the same outfit as Ernest Hemingway, in a conflict that started 100 years and 3 months ago.

Grandpa was deaf. I think, though I’m not positive, that he lost much of hearing during the war. For all of the time I knew him, he used a hearing aid that worked reasonably well, and I don’t think he ever learned Sign Language. However, his hearing loss was noticeable to others, and I’m sure that while he was a highly functional and successful businessman, being deaf was something he had to consciously grapple with every day.

Grandpa Fearon died 1987, when I was 20 years old. I wish we had overlapped a few more years, so that I could have talked with him more about his war experiences and how he felt about his own disability. I bet he could have told some stories about the disabilities he saw imposed in such massive quantities by a modern, mechanized war fought with strategies that were already out of date in the Civil War.

Disabled Veterans Memorial

Obama honors veterans at new memorial
New York Times - October 5, 2014

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Washington Post - September 30, 2014

Nolan Feeney, Time Magazine - October 5, 2014

This is a great thing. I’m almost positive it is. As steeped as I am in the world of disability, that is how ignorant and detached I am from the military and veterans culture. So I can only half make my own assessment of the new memorial … how it looks, what it says, and what other people say about it. From the just the disability perspective, I have a few thoughts.

- Why did they call it the American Veterans Disabled For Life Memorial. It sounds one of those situations where a committee of people debated long and in great detail how to say something delicate so as not to offend anyone … and came up with something bureaucratic and offensive. What’s wrong with something simple like Disabled Veterans Memorial?

- They chose 18 quotations to display, out of hundreds of possibilities. I wish the official website would print all of the selected quotes, because I don’t much like the George Washington quote that appears in all the publicity. There’s nothing wrong with it, particularly considering how people spoke back then. But just showing us that quote suggests that the Memorial is all about sadness and pity. I really hope that isn’t true, and I suspect it really isn’t. But I’d like to know.

- There’s a line in one of the articles about disabled veterans “reclaiming their lives”. That is actually a really good concept to replace the idea of a cure, recovery, or even rehabilitation for all disabled people. Ultimately what we all want is to claim or re-claim our own lives. It works just as well for a child born with a disability. What we really want is for them to “claim a life” for themselves, just as we hope disabled veterans are able to “re-claim” their lives. “Getting better”, or “fitting in” may or may not be part of that, but we don’t have to be 100% fixed to claim or reclaim a life.

Disability News

News topic icon
Steve Vogel, Washington Post - November 10, 2013

This is a surprisingly sympathetic profile of Gen. Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Maybe it’s a puff piece, but even with that possibility in mind, this article left me admiring Gen. Shinseki, and optimistic that the VA’s well-known problems might actually be on the way to being fixed. If nothing else, it sounds like Shinseki has good policy instincts that are firmly on the side of helping veterans, rather than guarding the bureaucracy. The irony is that if Shinseki was more of a gate-keeper, he’d probably be less publicly criticized.

Marc Santora and Benjamin Weiser, New York Times - November 7, 2013

Robert Lewis, NPR - November 9, 2013

I can easily imagine the average non-disabled reader wondering how in hell any city is supposed to handle disabled people in a natural disaster. The thing is, it’s probably going to end up being a few fairly simple steps that just get forgotten … like mobilizing wheelchair-accessible buses. It’s amazing how often otherwise intelligent people forget to think of basic transportation for people with disabilities who can’t ride in any old vehicle and don't own their own adapted vans. They have no concept of how limiting it is to a person’s mobility, and to their ability to take responsibility for their own safety. As for not being able to leave a building because of out-of-order elevators, I’m not sure what the fix for that is. Hopefully, with this court ruling and a new city administration coming in, disability advocates and city officials will actually work together to come up with practical solutions. Just repeating, "It's too hard, it can't be done" won't accomplish anything.

The President's DAV Speech: Pretty Good

I thought this was a very good speech. He didn't break any new ground, and there weren't any flashes of great insight, but the speech was very well balanced. I'd say roughly 60% of it was about specific policies 30% was inspirational, bordering on sentimental, and only about 10% of the speech was what could fairly be called political … in the sense of serving the President's agenda. I don't know what people there thought, but I think that's a very fair balance.

The policy portion broke down into 5 main priority areas:
  1. Adequate budgets / resources … a somewhat political pitch to end the sequester and get Congress to make a real budget deal.
  2. Ensure veterans health care … including specific reference to Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, PTSD, prosthetics, mental health and the suicide epidemic, help to caregivers and families, and new efforts to provide more targets healthcare to female veterans. The Affordable Care Act was mentioned only as a reassurance that it wouldn't change anything for veterans who already have insurance, but might help those who don't acquire it.
  3. Reduce the claims backlog … reductions have not moved as fast as he wanted, but the backlog is shrinking. Also spoke of improving enrollment systems so that now and in the future, claims will be processed correctly, the first time.
  4. Rights and dignity of disabled veterans … ending homelessness of veterans, and mention of the need to pass the UN Disability Treaty, another somewhat political pitch, but not heavy handed.
  5. Education and jobs … efforts to curb shady education pitches, and increase Federal hiring of disabled veterans, including a push for a Veterans Job Corps that would organize public service around the country.
Some other things I noticed in the speech:
  • I wonder why Sgt. Perez didn't choose to have his leg amputated, rather than endure over 30 surgeries? I believe that in many similar cases, the recovery is much faster and more complete.
  • Come to think of it, none of the individual stories in the speech included making effective use of wheelchairs or other assistive devices, except temporarily on the way to "recovery".
  • American Veterans Disabled For Life Memorial??? Is that really its name? Why "for life?"
  • "Rather than be defined by what you lost … by what you can't do … you inspired Americans by what you can do."
  • The President made several references to veterans helping each other … by telling stories of three DAV employees, and by other examples of peer support, including disabled veterans reaching out to people injured in the Boston bombings … "Dedicated not just to your own recovery, but to taking care of each other."
  • Regarding the suicide epidemic, the President said he wanted to make sure that, "Those who are hurting know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it's part of staying strong.
  • Towards the end, the President did mention people getting on by using prosthetics, wheelchairs, walkers, homes adapted for accessibility, and one-on-one personal care. And at that point I realized that he didn't make a single reference or even hint at older-style permanent VA hospitals or institutions. It was all about people going home again, still recovering, but in their own homes and communities, with their families.
Good job, I thought, with an audience that's not a guaranteed slam dunk for any President. I'd like to see President Obama address a broader disability audience. Also, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I wish they could figure out a way for him to attend a breakout session or two at these types of conventions … so he could hear some of what rank and file members are learning and worried about.

President Obama at the DAV

I haven't watched the video yet, but I will do shortly, and plan to write my thoughts about the speech tomorrow. I'm putting the video up now in case anyone visiting here would like to see it.

Here is the New York Times article covering the event:

Jackie Calmes, New York Times - August 10, 2013

For helpful background on the veterans disability claim backlog, I recommend Kayla Williams' 3-part series in Time Magazine: