What's Work Got To Do With It?      Policy Highlights, 1870-1930

World War I Rehabilitation

World War I, like the Civil War, enlarged the population of disabled men and taught doctors new methods for helping them. In the postwar years, the disabled veteran took a special place among people with disabilities, again, as he had after the Civil War. The disabled veteran was not seen in popular culture as a partial or limited person as most other people with disabilities were. He had been whole and virile before his injury, and was cut down in the prime of his youth. Because his loss was sustained fighting for his country, in "making the world safe for democracy," the disabled veteran had a special claim to our pity and benevolence. That claim resulted in federal investment in rehabilitation.

In the New Era of the 1920s and the New Deal of the 1930s, questions about social responsibility for people with disabilities were raised. The New Era was characterized by local efforts to provide for people with disabilities: state pension plans, industrial worker's compensation laws, and local vocational rehabilitation programs were established. The New Deal brought federal efforts to deal with some disability issues, including Social Security which addressed problems related to the elderly and the blind.

In the 1920s, there was a notable increase in the number of film stories featuring young men overcoming disastrous injury received in the war. But World War I also increased the numbers of people with disabilities that could NOT be cured-- men like the veterans who Helen Keller counseled to accept their disabilities in her filmed life story, Deliverance.

The volume of serious injuries during the war led to significant improvements in acute care and gave doctors and nurses practical skills in treating them. After the war, rehabilitative medicine worked with disabled soldiers and veterans. The government's commitment to helping disabled WWI veterans is demonstrated by the many films about the rehabilitation process that were made which tell hopeful stories of successful adaptation.

Over the years, "rehabilitation" has come to mean many things, from relearning the daily tasks of personal care to rethinking the physical environment in which people with disabilities live. But for many years it also reinforced a medical model of disability in which doctors and medical professionals supervised and retained authority over their patients. Doctors determined what goals were attainable, and how they should be reached.

In many post-WWI films, rehabilitation was portrayed as the process of relearning the simplest daily tasks-- walking or eating with a prosthesis, for instance. But many of these films contributed to low expectations for people going through rehabilitation: successful rehabilitation meant a return to society, but the life-choices available to veterans were extremely limited. The jobs considered appropriate for disabled veterans seem to have descended directly from the lists formulated by the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War: blind veterans caned chairs and tuned pianos; an adaptive chair made it possible for a legless vet to get an assembly-line job. The kinds of limits these portrayals imposed on the personal opportunities people with disabilities had-- in education, careers, even sexual possibilities-- and the enduring cultural preconceptions they contributed to, were an important part of the history that people with disabilities shared.

In the 1920s, the rehabilitation techniques pioneered with WWI veterans were applied to victims of industrial accidents as well. Physical and occupational therapy helped many people with disabilities learn to dress themselves, walk, and perform other daily tasks. But the goals of rehabilitation medicine were perceived as too limited, and its practice too mundane, to earn its practitioners the status or resources given to doctors engaged in acute care or the search for the cure of disease.

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