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Who Cares For The War Victims With Disabilities?

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the National Organization on Disability's website and is dated July 10, 2002.

Tragically, wars are happening on nearly every continent in the world. According to a United Nations spokesman, "Every hour people are being killed, or being maimed and becoming permanently disabled in the world." So many horrors are occurring that it is impossible to provide an exact number. Is any consideration given by the perpetrators as to who will care for the people who become either temporarily or permanently disabled?

A June 20 Washington Post editorial, for example, points out that in "20 months at least 71 suicide bombings have killed 247 civilians and wounded thousands more in the Middle East."

When I inquired with the United Nations, Israeli Embassy and a Palestinian organization in the United States about the number of either temporary or permanently disabled people resulting from retaliatory raids, I received these numbing answers: "We can't tell," or "We don't know."

The world's efforts to deal with the challenges facing people with disabilities are abysmal. The fundamental rights of disabled persons--including the rights to education, parenthood, property, participation in elections, and access to courts of law--are consistently violated around the world, the United Nations Commission for Social Development was told earlier this year.

Millions of disabled persons worldwide live in misery and exclusion, the Commission's Special Rapporteur on Disability, Bengt Lindqvist, says. People with disabilities are left behind in emergency situations in armed conflict, and disabled children are often hidden by their families or shut up in inhumane institutions.

An American doctor who served with the organization Doctors Without Borders told me, "I have been in Somalia, the Middle East and the Sudan, and in all of these countries I have seen tens of thousands of people lose eyes, hands, feet or arms as a result of war and other random acts of violence. The governments and families lack the fundamental infrastructure to care for the people--the men, women and children who become disabled."

He added, "The human carnage haunts me. And it should certainly haunt the perpetrators."

Sally Kellerman, a former Red Cross volunteer nurse, has travelled the world working in war zones. She says, "I have seen civilian war amputees who were once professionals, begging for food and living in the most squalid conditions in Asia. Their governments and communities lack both the resources and fundamental commitment to care for them."

There are also the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims who become disabled as a result of lack of food and access to medical care.

"Food and medical supplies become weapons of war when people needing them are denied access," Kellerman says. She recalls seeing women, children and the elderly, their bones visible and their vision nearly gone, crawling on the ground for help.

When people acquire disabilities, hordes of challenges abruptly spring up. Ben Ali Hassen Mohamad, a former programmer from New Delhi, told me, "After I lost my left arm and part of my left leg because of an exploding mine, questions began haunting me. They were: Who am I now? What can I do now? What future do I now have professionally? If single, can I now plan for a family? If married, can I now be an effective parent? Can I now be a wage earner? Can I now be a lover? Can I now be independent? Am I now viewed the same by my family and friends? The 'now I's multiplied with each personal, intellectual, economic, social and physical challenge."

Mohamad was not aware until recently of the variety of assistive technology products which could help him, and is now working to buy text-to-speech programs and a wheelchair.

There is the problem of social acceptance from peers. In cultures worldwide, including ours, people with disabilities are often treated as less than totally human. Jobs and education are denied to them. Physical access to buildings and transportation is limited. This lack of accessibility can mean the person with a disability is unemployable. Charity and invisibility are more the norm once a disability is acquired.

"When the rebels blinded me, I became a charity case," Raphael Martino Mendoza of Colombia said. He lost his job and self-esteem. In 2000, he left Colombia and is now living in Montreal, Canada, with family. Recently, he discovered the benefits of a talking watch, clock and computer programs.

In some cultures, people with disabilities become beggars and are starving. In too many cultures, there are no rehabilitation programs to train them to develop their skills. In fact, most of the world's countries lack the resources to provide people with disabilities the simplest adaptive eating utensils or wheelchairs.

"A simple spoon designed to assist people with eating can do much to raise a person with a disability's self-esteem," Mendoza said.

Even in the richest cultures, there are the economic strain and physical drain on family members caring for people with disabilities. "My family could not afford to care for me in Colombia, which is why I came to Canada," said Mendoza.

Before the next terrorist act occurs, before someone orders a person's limbs to be chopped off, before the next war commences, perpetrators should consider the tragic consequences for the victims who will live either temporarily or permanently disabled. The perpetrators don't want to be disabled, so why do they want to disable others? Why do they want to bring social hardship and economic ruin to people who may be their neighbours?

If the people planning wars, planting mines and ordering bombings had disabilities themselves, they might not perpetrate such violence. The United Nations can't care for the half-billion people with disabilities worldwide as it is; the world does not need wars to add to the number of people with disabilities.

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