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Furthermore, the war was of great importance in that it completely altered the demographic of the disabled population in Britain: the returning veterans were fit, enfranchised men, previously comprising the most dependable portion of the citizenry. Indeed, 70% of amputees were less than 30 years of age. This demographic shift served to challenge prevailing conservative and eugenic conceptions of disability as a societal burden, associated with vulnerability and deficiency. In a reversal of previous perceptions, disability, albeit that of the symbolic figure of the ex-serviceman, came to signify the ‘supreme realization of Victorian expectations about manliness’. Losing a limb in warfare problematized the question of breeding for eugenicists, whose theories were prominent at the beginning of the twentieth century. Whilst previously, those with deformities, whom eugenicists perceived to be moral and physical degenerates, were dissuaded from having children to preserve the nation’s ‘racial qualities’, the material and psychological motivations of a ‘land fit for heroes’ heightened the impetus to ‘restore’ disabled veterans. Such men still had the desirable biological qualities required to enhance Britain’s racial stock, as their physical incapacities evinced strength and heroism, thus their progeny needed to be protected. Indeed, the Eugenics Society implored the state to provide ample financial benefits that would allow disabled ex-servicemen to keep pace with their ‘stay-at-home neighbors’ in the marriage market. Ultimately, as Bourke asserted, it was this change in the constitution of the disabled population ‘from passive to active sufferers that altered the entire language of disablement’. She argues that there was a marked cultural ‘movement from a language of childlike passivity’ associated with disability, citing the example of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things, which changed its name to the Guild of the Handicapped in 1916 to appeal more to wounded soldiers who understandably found the original name to be emasculating. Fundamentally, this constant accentuation of disabled veterans as heroes, with elevated civic worth, rendered conservative notions of disablement insupportable, thereby setting off the process of changing well-established public attitudes toward and culture’s treatment of physical disability.

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Conversely, while the First World War was significant to cultural experiences and understandings of disability in the short term, perhaps it was less so in the long term, as memories of the conflict receded. A serious bone of contention in the historiography of disabled war veterans is the ‘turning away’ debate, wherein historians such as Bourke claimed that the early sentimentalization of the war-wounded eventually translated into indifference on the part of both the public and politicians. Several factors indeed coincided to make the disabled veterans’ cause less culturally visible over the years. Arguably, the fact that there were so many of them paradoxically contributed to their fading eminence in the public eye as the novelty wore off; in such extreme numbers, disabled men no longer aroused the guilt and sympathy they once had and were subjected to similar forms of neglect as the pre-existing civilian disabled. This, coupled with a desire to forget the war’s horrors, meant that disabled veterans were largely overlooked in commemorative practices, which centered on grief and the memorialization of the dead soldier hero, as opposed to the war’s surviving victims. Moreover, with the arrival of the severe economic depression in the mid-1920s, the call for healthy, young laborers supplanted the need to honor the less economically viable, war-mutilated bodies of veterans. Subsequently, as Bourke argued, ‘growing attention to the beautiful, molded male physique’ replaced earlier cultural representations of heroism as represented through disablement. In this sense, war was less significant to changing public perception of disability, because the later interwar years, in the wake of the recession, encouraged a return to attitudes of contempt toward physical impairment and admiration of the conventionally attractive, able-body.

Perhaps the most compelling reason suggesting that war was not so influential in altering attitudes toward disability is that it served to reinforce the notion that there are ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ classes of disabled people. There was a clear cultural distinction among different types of disability; for instance, blindness and amputation were considered worthier of support than ‘invisible’ disabilities. Moreover, the support and respect for those invalided out of the armed forces due to illness as opposed to injury was negligible; the Eugenics Education Society felt strongly that diseased veterans should not be awarded pensions at all. The war also served to extend the division between disabled ex-servicemen and the civilian disabled, as the rhetoric embraced those men who were ‘unnaturally abnormal’ and thereby the nation’s responsibility, whilst those disabled at birth or as a result of their working-class status continued to be blamed for their condition. That having been said, despite the valid argument that public recognition of war disability waned throughout the post-war years and that conflict-induced injuries further entrenched notions of ‘natural’ versus ‘unnatural’ abnormalities, it is undeniable that the war caused public exposure to disability issues on a greater scale than ever before, and cultural understandings of disability shifted as a result. Given the number of men returning from war disabled, most families across Britain would have had very personal experiences in confronting the harsh realities of physical disability. As such, the war indicated the beginnings of a transformation in perception of disability, from one that lay the blame on the individual, to one that accepted it as being a collective issue.

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