(Re)constructing and (Re)habilitating the Disabled Body: World War One Era Disability Policy and Its Enduring Ramifications

By Withers, A. J. | Canadian Review of Social Policy, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

(Re)constructing and (Re)habilitating the Disabled Body: World War One Era Disability Policy and Its Enduring Ramifications


Withers, A. J., Canadian Review of Social Policy


Introduction

The First World War, fought from 1914 to 1919, was different from other wars Canada had previously participated in. The sheer scale of this war was unparalleled in history. In addition to the roughly 61,326 dead, 172,950 injured soldiers returned from the war (Guest, 1997). The rehabilitation effort for returning soldiers in Canada focused primarily on disabled veterans' medical and vocational rehabilitation, followed by pensions if needed. In this article, I will examine how disability was discursively produced in Canada and how it was interlocked with economic productivity which worked to support the establishment of the medical model of disability and reinforce oppressive ideas about gender and citizenship.

I will achieve this objective by examining federal rehabilitation and pension programs for disabled soldiers returning from the war. Following a brief survey of the scholarly literature, this article examines the dominant discoursed about disability leading up to and during WWI. I will then provide a brief account of the emerging field of rehabilitation, including the establishment of rehabilitation programs and policies for returned disabled veterans. I then examine Canada's pension program for injured soldiers. These two programs worked to construct masculinity and citizenship as necessarily self-sufficient and disability as a loss in economic productivity. I will conclude this article by discussing some of the lingering implications of these early disability policies in contemporary Canadian social policy.

Literature Review

A number of historians have documented the Canadian events of the First World War, and Tim Cook (2011) has produced a thorough historiography of them. The bulk of the studies written about Canada's Great War experience have been military histories (Cook, 2011; Kurschinski, 2015), although there have also been several medical histories (see: Allard, 2005; Macphail, 1925; Moran, 2008; Nicholson, 1975; Rawling, 2001). A number of social histories have examined the experiences of the war on Canadian soil (see: Keshen, 1996; Shaw & Glassford, 2012; Thompson, 1978; Vance, 2011); of particular note are those that have examined the role the war played in establishing masculine ideals and loyalty to the state (Moss, 2001; Vance, 2012).

Rehabilitation and pension programs for injured soldiers, however, have had limited treatment by historians, with some notable exceptions. Desmond Morton (1987; 1992) provides a political history of the development of the disability pension program for soldiers. In his influential work: Fight or Pay: Soldiers, families and the Great War (2004) he examines both family and disability pensions, their impact on Canadians at home and their political utility. Morton (1981) also authored a brief overview of Canada's rehabilitation program. Additionally, he and Wright (1987) provide an insightful political history of the reintegration of soldiers, including the rehabilitation and pensioning of disabled soldiers, returning from the war through to 1930. Building on this work, Kellen Kurschinski's (2015) State, service, and survival: Canada's Great War disabled, 1914-44 provides a detailed history of both Canada's vocational training and pension programs using what he calls a "patient centred" framework (p. 28). Lara Campbell discusses how veterans mobilized their war injuries to procure benefits from the state during economic crisis; in doing so, she briefly examines the disability pension program and its lines of inclusion and exclusion (2000). Additionally, Occupational therapy scholar Judith Friedland (2011) has contributed a history of the field's emergence prior to the war and its consolidation around the time of and largely made possible by the First World War.

These historians tend to unreflexively accept disability as a fixed category.1 In contrast, disability scholars frequently discuss the ways that the concept of disability is produced and utilized in a historical context. …

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