100 Years on, how attitudes towards disability have changed

11 November 2018 doesn’t just mark 100 years since Armistice, but also 100 years since the start of changing attitudes towards people with disabilities.

I think most people would agree, that in war there are no winners, but there are lessons that can be learnt.

Attitudes towards people with disabilities before 1918

Presently disabilities tend to be grouped into a few categories, something you are born with, something resulting from an accident or age related illness.  One hundred years ago there were no vaccines against diseases that caused a huge amount of disability, this was compounded by a lack of free healthcare to support those affected. Institutions were set up for people with disabilities to be sent to, away from their families, away from mainstream society; at best they were viewed as the ‘deserving poor’.

Returning WW1 servicemen

Throughout the First World War, 1 million British men lost their lives, however almost 2 million returned with a permanent disability. This was a starting point in how people with a disability were viewed, these weren’t disabled, sick or burdens – they were war heroes.

As a result there were some key changes in the treatment and provision for people with a disability, as listed on Historic England:

  • Advances in surgery and prosthetics.
  • Ex-servicemen with physical and mental illness were treated with sport and fitness.
  • Employers were encouraged to employ disabled workers. Sheltered employment workplaces started, including the British Legion poppy factory in London – although these weren’t typically well paid.
  • New housing was built for disabled ex-servicemen.

We must not assume this meant people with disabilities were all treated equally, civilians with disabilities didn’t see these improvements and were still treated as the ‘deserving poor’.

Greater changes after WW2

With the start of the Second World War the able bodied workforce was enlisted into military service. This left the country in need of workers, and as such the mainstream workplaces had to start promoting work aimed at people with disabilities.

The Second World War saw another 300,000 soldiers return with disabilities.

Influence of charities and sport

Post WW2 campaigning by charities started in earnest to give all people with disabilities equality. The built environment and the idea of access for all in society gained momentum.

The Paralympics began after the Second World War. Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish neurosurgeon who found safety in Britain after fleeing Germany in 1939, opened a spinal injuries centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK which included sport as part of the rehabilitation. In 1948 Dr Guttmann set up a competition for wheelchair users,  the Stoke Mandeville games, which coincided with the first day of the Olympics. What started as a competition for British disabled servicemen and women is now a platform for people across the globe with disabilities to compete.

Is there more to do?

  • It has been 100 years since the First World War ended.
  • The Second World War ended 73 years ago.
  • There are still ongoing conflicts.
  • We are still fighting for equality and inclusion for all in society.

Modern conflicts have sadly seen more service men and women injured, which have created fresh ideas and challenges to perceptions of people with disabilities. Personally I believe the 2012 Olympics had a fantastic positive message of inclusion, once again aligning sport and impairments. This work is being continued in the Invictus games being set up for service personnel to compete.

Charities are still running to help support service personnel, their families and those no longer serving in the forces.

PTSD is getting the required recognition, whilst much more needs doing to help and support those suffering it is being talked about. As it becomes an increasing part of the mainstream consciousness the stigma of mental illness is lessening.

Royal Legion poppy with the words 'Live on To the memory of the fallen and the future of the living

So this week I wear my poppy with pride, I give thanks to the servicemen who have made the ultimate sacrifice; those who have served their country, those who come back with both physical and invisible scars. Whilst I can never fully comprehend what they have done I can pledge to continue improving the environment both physically and digitally to ensure all people with disabilities are enabled not disabled.