Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes – WAR AND DISABILITY


Over the past few months there has been a heightened profile of disability in all forms of the media – newspapers have been carrying front page stories about disabled people, TV channels have been running programmes during primetime viewing about disability and its impact on those who have become disabled.  Particularly about those who have been injured in the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The reason for the heightened profile on disability is quite simply – war.  War and disability are inextricably linked.  The war that our country is currently engaged in (whatever the rights and wrongs) has created a new generation of disabled people.  During any conflict, this has been the case.  For my generation, the first real insight into the horror of war came with Vietnam.  Images of badly injured American soldiers being flown back home from Vietnam filled our living rooms during the early 1970’s.  Then in 1981 we in the UK, lived through the Falklands conflict and experienced the terrible impact that burns injuries and limb loss had on people from the baby boom era of the 1960’s.

Modern history provides an interesting link to the connection between disability and war.  With injured soldiers returning from the battlefields, it was necessary to treat them in the best way possible.  Following World War One, major advances were made in plastic surgery.  The problems of limb loss during the Second World War were dramatically portrayed in the film “Reach for the Sky” telling the story of Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader and his return to active war service following the loss of his legs in a flying accident.

However, advancements in the development of prosthetics following the First and Second World Wars weren’t great.  Artificial limbs were, and remained for many years, no more than tubes of metal, hinged at the knee or elbow providing a crude way of replacing lost limbs. 

When my generation of Thalidomide children were born, we found ourselves in an archaic system that failed to recognise that as children, we needed limbs which worked for kids and not by using rehashed limb designs for (as they were called in those days) limbless ex-servicemen. 

The limbs that were provided for Thalidomide impaired children were often ill-fitting and uncomfortable, unsightly and unreliable and wholly inadequate for the needs of a generation of children who had specific impairments that did not “fit the norm”. 

In my case, and in an attempt to make me look normal, I was encased in a metal jacket, given heavy and unwieldy limbs, a gas cylinder was strapped to my back, and just for good measure I was given a crash helmet to wear on my head!!  I’m sure you’ll agree that this was hardly the stuff that makes a three year old look “normal”, and if you are interested, there are some photographs of me in this “genre” in Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes.

This scenario was repeated the length of the country as the limb service struggled to cope, and continued until many of us rebelled against the use of our prosthetics, in favour of making the best use of the small limbs that we had.

The visibility and impact of limb loss could not be hidden after Thalidomide.  Whilst some children were left in hospitals and institutions many of us were embraced by our families and enjoyed a full family life – going to school, having non-disabled friends and playing an active part in our local communities.

Disability was now no longer a “taboo” subject.  Consequently, when the Falklands war maimed and injured so many, those returning soldiers were embraced by their communities.  Simon Weston (with whom I have shared speaking platforms) was a typical South Wales “valley boy”.  However, when the Sir Galahad was bombed Simon’s life changed forever.  It is hard to forget the documentaries that charted Simon’s recovery from some of the most horrific burns that war has ever produced.  Not only did life change in a very physical sense for Simon, it also led him on a journey of discovery, ultimately making him into the motivational speaker that he is today.

Now we are witnessing another generation of disabled people maimed by war, coming to terms with their impairments.  Perhaps the real difference for this generation is the major advancement in medicine and rehabilitation. 

Quality of life will be enhanced for these honourable soldiers, and the Government has made it clear that it will continue to provide the highest standard of limbs, in line with those which are presently available to servicemen, even when they retire.

Currently, returning soldiers are provided with differing limbs dependant upon usage – computerised limbs for walking, limbs for swimming and limbs for exercising.  The cost of even a basic artificial limb runs into thousand of pounds and so it is quite reasonable to assume that the cost of limb provision for our returning soldiers will amount to tens of thousand of pounds.  One therefore has to wonder whether the NHS can sustain this commitment without affecting the level of service for other limb users.

No-one should begrudge this provision, but it does beg the question as to whether a two-tier system of limb provision is beginning to emerge.  The way impairment is acquired may be different, but decency and fairness requires that the treatment afforded to amputees should be the same irrespective of the cause of impairment.

Disability arises in various ways – through accident, illness or old age.  The basis of Aneurin Bevan’s National Health Service was the provision of help at the point of need.  Sadly, for those who have already gone through the NHS limb fitting service, its failings are well known.  It all comes down to a question of resources.  The resources currently made available for limb provision are wholly inadequate, even without the extra pressure of caring for those young men who have been so terribly injured in the name of international peace.

In saluting their bravery and determination, I hope that when these young service personnel return to a world outside the regime of the armed forces, they will benefit from the campaigning and commitment of people such as the parents of Thalidomide impaired children and other disability groups, who have done so much to make life more inclusive, and more meaningful for disabled people generally. 

Out of the horrors of war, positive changes can come to the way disabled people are treated and portrayed.  Firstly by Government realising that extra resources are needed to make life easier and more equal for all disabled people.  This will then be followed by an acknowledgement by the whole of society that respect and courtesy, and not pity and sympathy, are what disabled people seek.  Ultimately then, the long and sometimes tortuous road to disability equality will have been worthwhile.

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