November 14: War, Technology, & Disability Communities

This week, we will focus on the emergence of disability communities—communities organized around their members’ shared status of having a disability—with particular emphasis on disabled veterans’ organizations.  We will also investigate the ways in which transnational technology and policy transfers, as well as interpersonal interactions, helped both make the emergence of these communities possible and lay the groundwork for the disability rights movements that arose in the mid-twentieth century.

Please use the comment function to post two discussion questions about this week’s readings by Thursday at 2 pm.  Focus on intriguing or controversial points in the readings that you think will spark discussion.  Strong discussion questions are open-ended, engage with major points in author(s)’ arguments, and are not factual in nature.

Please also post one of the following:

  • a short description (1-3 sentences) of your “muddiest point,” that is, what important point of the author’s argument did you have trouble grasping
  • your “most interesting connection” for this week’s reading

If you refer to a specific point or quote in one of the readings, please provide the author and page number.



Veterans & the State

  1. David A. Gerber, “Disabled Veterans, the State, and the Experience of Disabled Veterans in Western Societies, 1914-1915,” Journal of Social History 36, no. 4 (Summer 2003): 899-916 (MavSpace)
  2. Deborah Cohen, “Will to Work,” Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany after the First World War,” in Disabled Veterans in History, ed. David A. Gerber (University of Michigan Press, 2000), 295-321 (MavSpace)
  3. Sarah F. Rose, “The Right to a College Education? The GI Bill, Public Law 16, and Disabled Veterans,” Journal of Policy History 24, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 26-52 (MavSpace)

Early Disability Rights Organizing

  1. Carol Poore, “Recovering Disability Rights in the Weimar Republic,” Radical History Review 94 (Winter 2006), 38-58 (MavSpace)
  2. Paul K. Longmore and David Goldberger, “The League of the Physically Handicapped and the Great Depression: A Case Study in the New Disability History,” Journal of American History 87, no. 3 (December 2000): 888-922 (MavSpace)

Technology and Community (choose one of the following)

  1. Mary Tremblay, “Going Back to Civvy Street: A Historical Account of the Impact of the Everest and Jennings Wheelchair for Canadian World War II Veterans with Spinal Cord Injury,” Disability & Society 11, no. 2 (1996): 149-169 (MavSpace)
  2. Julie Anderson and Neil Pemberton, “Walking Alone: Aiding the War and Civilian Blind in the Inter-War Period,” European Review of History—Revue européenne d’Histoire 14, no. 4 (December 2007): 459-479 (MavSpace)
  3. Julie Anderson, ‘”Turned into Taxpayers”: Paraplegia, Rehabilitation and Sport at Stoke Mandeville 1944-1956’, Journal of Contemporary History 38 (3) (2003): 461-476 (MavSpace)

8 Responses to “November 14: War, Technology, & Disability Communities”

  1. Dalton Boyd says:

    Question 1: In Will to Work, Cohen showed how both Great Britain and Germany dealt with their disabled veterans after World War I and how they tried to find them work. Why was Germany seemingly more advanced than Great Britain in helping their disabled veterans find work, even if they had to force businesses to hire these men? If Victorian era morality compelled disabled veterans to work than why did Great Britain not help them find work more effectively or force businesses to hire these disabled veterans with a salary they could live on? Was insanity recovery covered in either of these systems or were these veterans excluded? If they were excluded from these programs than why were they?

    Question 2: Julie Anderson and Meil Pemberton looked at the treatment of both civilian and veteran blind people between World War I and II. How could guide dogs devalue a blind veteran’s manliness when they did need some form of aid to help them maneuver around? Would this lack of guides and aides guarantee more accidents and problems? Wasn’t Pearson just trying to advocate social control when he and others stated that blindness is only a temporary disability? How were blind people supposed to get work if employers would not hire them because they were blind? Does this not negate the thought that blindness was a temporary disability? Why were “normal” people against making accommodations for the disabled, such as the education accommodations that Dr. Rose discusses in her article? In relation to Dr. Rose’s article, how was vocational training supposed to help disabled veterans if employers were looking for only able bodied men? Also, why should these disabled veterans not attend college and learn a trade that did not rely on physical strength?

    Most interesting connection: It is very interesting that the United States, Great Britain, and Germany wanted all of their disabled veterans and civilians to become economically independent. Yet, at the same time, Poore, Pemberton, Longmore, Anderson and Cohen showed in their articles that unless businesses were forced to hire those who were disabled they were often left out of the workforce or giving jobs that offered little pay. As a result, these disabled people began to protest against these injustices and ask for equality in both the job market and in higher education, such as the people described in Poore’s, Rose’s, Pemberton’s, and Longmore’s article.

  2. Robert Caldwell says:

    Nihil de nobis, sine nobis

    Nothing About Us Without Us!

    As many of you know, the faculty has been in closed discussions and is moving to implement changes in both the MA and the Transatlantic PhD program without prior notification or consultation with students. When it came to the attention of graduate students, many of us in the Transatlantic program raised concerns and signed a letter to faculty. I am saddened and confused that the faculty refused to acknowledge the letter signed by current and former THSO officers and students of the program.

    You will see me in class tonight. However, I am boycotting all course assignments and classroom discussions until the History faculty and department administration are willing to engage a substantive discussion based on the needs and concerns of students. Even if all of the proposed the changes to the program are all for the best, I see faculty actions to exclude us from the discussion and from real information as as a grave disrespect and violation of trust. My decision to refrain from discussion and course assignments for the time being did not come easy. I very much enjoy the discussions we have together in class and sincerely hope for some resolution of this matter of communication prior to our last class next week.

    “Nothing About Us Without Us!” (Nihil de nobis, sine nobis) emerged from 16th-century central European political traditions. It (o nás bez nás) was (and is) used by Czechoslovaks to describe their betrayal whereby their lands were bargained away by more powerful countries personified by Chamberlain, Daladier, Mussolini an Hitler in the Munich Agreement. Pertinent for this class, “Nothing About Us Without Us!” has been a rallying cry in the U.S., South African, and global Disability movement. I think it is an appropriate slogan.

    Robert Caldwell

  3. Cory Wells says:

    This week’s readings all deal, to varying degrees, with disabled agency in shaping community identity. I appreciated the way the pieces under “Veterans and the State,” returned agency to the veterans themselves, challenging the way we imagine, as Gerber points out, the state as the main actor in the formation of communities of disabled veterans. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of a “usable past,” and I wonder how what we learn from these instances can shape the current effort to reintegrate those returning from war? Of course, those returning today come back with a different set of injuries than those of the past, while we also recognize psychological injury to a greater extent.

    Another point that is mentioned in a few of this week’s readings is the effect of the introduction of antibiotics and their role in the creations of, or at least extension of disability. The point that the medical field often creates disability by extending the lives of those who would otherwise not have survived has been mentioned in class before, and I think it’s an important point to consider as medicine continually develops way to extend the length of time individuals can live with a disability. I think it is connected very much to the attitude we have encountered in last week’s readings especially, but throughout the course concerning “life worth living.” As the lives of all individuals are extended, we will all be even more likely to spend a significant portion of our lives as disabled. I suppose that’s not really a question, but I find it fascinating.

    In connection with the previous readings in the course, and as a muddy point for myself, I wonder if identity creation could be “read back” further than we have to date. Could there have been a disabled identity or community before the late nineteenth century (I’m thinking here of the first Deaf organizations), even though the concepts or asylums/schools didn’t necessarily exist, much like the idea of disability?

  4. Lydia Towns says:

    1. In Poore’s article she points out that physically handicapped “Aryan” Germans accepted eugenic ideology and worked to separate themselves from the “mentally impaired” instead of joining forces to show that the life of a disabled person, no matter the condition, is still worth living. This strikes me as contradictory and naïve. If there is a mass movement within Nazi Germany to “purify” the Aryan race, then why should handicapped Aryan Germans expect to be exempt from the eugenic laws? They are, after all, a threat to the purity of the race as they stand a greater chance of mixing their “tainted” blood with other Aryans through marriage than the handicapped “others” in Germany. I would have expected more to stand up, like Rudolf Kraemer, and speak-out against the dangers of accepting and even promoting eugenic language and practices.

    2. Several of the articles this week pointed out the growing role of sports in rehabilitation methods. While I can understand the idea that doctors were afraid to exacerbate the patient’s condition through over exerting the patient or were worried about the patient being injured in the sports activities, I am surprised that it took so long for sports to catch on in rehabilitation practices. After all, Samuel Howe was a strong proponent of using exercise to increase the strength and stamina of his blind and death pupils. As his works were so widely read and so influential in the medical field, I am surprised to see that it took nearly a hundred years for sports and true physical exercise to become common in rehabilitation practices.

    Connection: As I have gone back over last week’s readings and looked at some of this week’s readings, especially the articles pertaining to Germany, I am struck by just how effective the Nazi propaganda was. This has led me to wonder, to what extent were American perceptions of people with disabilities affected by Nazi propaganda? We talked several weeks ago about how a incorrect perception emerged, that during the late 1800s and early 1900s all disabled people were confined to institutions and were thus a burden to society. As this image is so closely related to the image portrayed by Nazi propaganda, I have to wonder, how much of this image in America of institutionalized disabled people came from the propaganda?

  5. Matthew Speight says:

    1. It seems that Germans created the narrative that it was not only the right but also the duty of disabled vets to return to work after the war. If I recall correctly, the United States used similar rhetoric following the War as well. If the U.S. and Germany are similar in this and rehabilitation was the goal, what would be the rhetorical goal of the British government in regards to soldiers? (Cohen Piece)

    2. Assistive aids seem to be a particularly interesting object of study. In viewing the transition of how guide dogs became normalized, I began to wonder how might current assistive aids gain more normalcy. Would the use by prominent figures in society deem current aids more normal or acceptable? (Anderson/Pemberton)

    3. We have brought up the idea of a “disabled culture or identity” throughout the semester. Two pieces seem to deal with the organizing of both disabled vets and other groups of disabled citizens. It seems that before there was a formal organization and a way in which to share experiences there was no common identity. With the formation of organization or in the meeting at a common location, commonality is formed. With the advent of the internet and a global community is it possible to see a global “disabled culture or identity?” (Longmore and Gerber pieces)


    Why is it that soldiers are held to a high standard of ability when returning from war? It seems like they would be celebrated and left alone, but the literature presents a situation in which they are still on the forefront of masculinity and rehabilitation.

  6. Christopher Malmberg says:

    All the readings this week deal with giving agency to disabled people, whether veteran or civilian. While we have discussed the older medical model of disability, I still found myself wondering to what extent that model has been detrimental to, not only disability history, but to disability rights overall. Longmore and Goldberger do an excellent job at pointing out the major flaws and the consequences of the medical model. While we as historians have begun to look at disability as a social construct, I had not yet considered that disabled individuals in the past actually argued that disability was/is a socially constructed category. In my narrow thinking, I viewed disabled individuals in the past as passively entering rehabilitation programs and accepting their “fates”, and it was not until historians in the past decade pointed to the social construction of disability that that idea circulated; however, in multiple readings this week we see instances of disabled people beginning in the Great Depression pointing out the reality behind the term “disabled”.

    In past readings we have begun to see a “disability hierarchy” emerge in which veterans occupied a special “top tier” place in regards to access to aid. It seemed that a binary opposition of disabled civilian versus disabled veteran existed, and in that opposition we assumed that disabled veterans really did “have it good”. David Gerber’s piece along with the article written by Sarah Rose seem to be going against this idea, albeit not getting rid of it entirely. Gerber does an excellent job at discussing how and why this binary was and continues to be created. Gerber says that the “state is certainly implicated in the creation of the gap between the two groups” and I am wondering if the “state” is not only partially responsible for this gap, but that it is in the interest of the state for the two groups to continually be in opposition?

    On another note, Gerber also has an interesting sentence where he says “…enable blinded veterans to know the world around them”. Previously in class during the documentary on occular implants, one of the deaf individuals spoke about the “deaf world”, which is separate from the hearing world. I am wondering if the blind have also created a “blind world” as well?

  7. Jacob Jones says:

    In Mary Tremblay’s account of the impact of the Everest and Jennings wheelchair on Canadian veterans we see a few differences that seem to greatly affect the experience of disability aside from the introduction of the new wheelchair. As opposed to the top-down style of decision making that excludes the view of persons with disabilities, the account shows the active incorporation of the disabled veteran John Counsell’s recommendation. In fact, the article shows several instances of this type of incorporation and the experience of disabled veterans in Canada seems much more positive than many accounts we have read. However, the Longmore and Goldberger article shows a disunity between the lived experience of administrators, notably FDR, and the League protesters. What other factors can be associated with the discordance of policy formation in terms of incorporation and exclusion of the disabled viewpoint? For example, economic concerns are usually cited without an in depth analysis of long-term cost, yet the Canadian example shows reincorporation into the workforce and regaining status as a tax payer.

    A theme that has grown throughout the semester as a limitation to disability rights is a defensive or oppositional identity formation against other types of disabilities. One of the most clear cases in this week’s readings is Otto Perl’s writing as shown by Carol Poore. In most cases, as in this one, it has been shown to be a distinction between the physically and mentally disabled. To what extent has this internal distinction within the disability rights movement altered our perceptions of disability? Did it lead, as they intended, to a hierarchical view of ability where the able bodied more closely identify with the physically disabled than the mentally disabled? Or did it only serve to reinforce a more general idea of disability?

    Since we have recently discussed the work of film in connections with the image of disability, I am wondering about the connection of the film The Battle of the Somme to the positive reaction of the British public to disabled veterans in the article comparing Germany and Britain. The film was shown to 20 million British citizens before the war had ended, reaching half of its population. It certainly forced a reconception of the effects of war and, perhaps, disabled veterans. Though there may be no way to accurately research the extent of influence, the discordance between relationships of German and British disabled veterans to their respective societies as portrayed by Cohen was undoubtedly affected by this film.

  8. Michael Deliz says:

    A list of questions;

    1) Placing this week’s readings with those of the previous weeks, is it fair/proper to regard Veterans with disabilities as a vanguard of the disability rights movement? Although, other examples of activism among persons with disabilities show clear initiative outside veteran ranks, the social and cultural value attributed to the veteran, so appear to have allowed greater success in affecting policy.

    2) Considering Gerber’s critique of the historiography that addresses disabled veterans as a collective category, united by a single-experience, which arbitrarily separates the lived experience of veterans from that of civilians with disabilities, the individual experiences however cannot be easily divorced from the special category that they were placed in the eyes of the state and the public. To complicate the history, by demonstrating the limits and drawback of such identification with the state and with the cultural meanings ascribed by the public, does it not deepen the veteran’s experience as a special category, to be separated from the rest of the civilian experience.

    3) In Longmore and Goldberger’s piece, the early twentieth-century activism, organization , and direct action taken by Depression Era persons with disabilities, provides a study in identity creation that is not often defined so clearly in other studies. Missing however is a better explanation of radicalization, that would explain why so few belonged to such organizations, and why those that did would take such actions, when so few did. The periodization of the 1930s, and as it appears again in the 1960s and 1970s, leads to an environmental conclusion that would establish these to be products of their time, moved to action just as others for other causes where moved to action in times of crisis. However, as the focus upon individual experience is valued within disability history, I find it odd that the move to radical action, and the construction of a radical identity, seem to receive little individuality in agency.

    3) At times it is difficult to sort out the manner by which technology and social awareness of the problems of society affect each other. In a chicken and egg relationship, wheelchairs, guide dogs for the blind, and other aids provide measures of accessibility which become important to the public perception of persons with disability. The development of technology therefore could be said to advance social awareness and acceptability/tolerance, among those who consider themselves normal, though perhaps stigmatizing disability and ability in new forms, creating perhaps new barriers for social integration. To what extent does the adoption of an aiding technology by one group, say the wheelchair, might also deepen the perceived deviancy of other persons with other disabilities. Or deepen the perceived “deviancy”/”abnormality” of those who reject the aiding technologies available?

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