Last updated: early 2006

Disability and the British Armed Forces

by Anthony Karl Page (Red Disability webmaster)


I'll begin this article by stating my politics explicitly. I am a pacifist who has no time for war, and a socialist who has absolutely no time for capitalist imperialist wars. At the same time, however, I am a disability rights activist who has a "yuk factor" towards any discrimination against people with disabilities. So, despite the fact that I would never join the military myself, I am against the ban on the recruitment of people with disabilities by the Armed Forces. In the immortal words of Martin Luther King, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

The issue came to prominance in late 2000, when the then head of the Armed Forces - General Guthrie - made a speech full of reactionary right-wing cliches, which also included an assertation that the military should not be covered by equal rights legislation for disabled people (to this day, the Armed Forces are exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act). His speech was condemned by several disability groups, notably Radar, but praised by the then prime minister Tony Blair.

The General's controversial remarks provoked an intense and polarised debate. Given the nature of Guthrie's speech and disabled people's experiences of prejudice and discrimination in society, it was understandable that many (myself included) made the mistake of believing everyone who opposed the employment of disabled people by the Armed Forces was as right-wing and reactionary as General Guthrie or Tony Blair.

Perceptions of the military

The impression among many of soldiers and military personnel has for a long time been that they are gung-ho, arrogant and reactionary with a bullying streak. A minority of servicemen and servicewomen probably do fit this description, as has been seen with the "suicides" at Deepcut Barracks and the prisoner abuse in Iraq. Indeed, the nature of military service - the job description involves killing and waging war against a demonised enemy - does not help. Nor does the necessity to obey orders (sometimes risking your own life) without argument.

However, to view all soldiers and military servicepersons in such a way does a severe disservice to those who do not fit the stereotype. Many who join the Armed Forces do so believing they are doing good, acting as "liberators" of people living under oppressive regimes. Others are attracted by the career prospects, wages and training promised to new recruits.

Indeed, a growing number of people currently serving in the military, not to mention former servicepeople, are growing increasingly disillusioned as a result of Blair's imperialist wars. A few have even gone AWOL and refused to fight, and it is not unknown for servicepeople to take part in anti-war demonstrations.

A danger to ourselves and others?

The most often quoted argument against people with disabilities serving in the Armed Forces, is that we would put ourselves in danger and compromise the safety and combat effectiveness of other combatants. This view is not unreasonable given the dangers facing soldiers in war zones (as I write, over 100 British soldiers have been killed in Iraq).

At the same time, however, it is not necessarily true that all people with disabilities would make poor soldiers. Indeed, in war time (probably the most dangerous time of all!), people who would not be employed by the military in peace time - epitomised by Douglas Bader.

Very few people excel at everything, and it is often the case that people with disabilities also have exceptional abilities in other areas. Surely, any team (including a military base) should have a diverse range of people with the best abilities for their individual job.

It seems to me that this would especially be the case in support services such as clerical work, communications, engineering, supplies, medical, software design, etc.

No room for non-combatants?

Currently, the rule is that all military employees should be able to fight if needed. Again, there are those who slavishly follow the status-quo and consider it heresy that non-combatants should provide any support for the military. A larger number, however, do have understandable reasons for opposing the involvement of non-military people in military operations.

The most common argument is that support staff must operate within or close to the combat zone. This is doubtless the case in several circumstances (eg installation of equipment at the base, the final stages of supplying the base, first aid for wounded soldiers). But I am sceptical about it being always the case.

The next argument, then, is that only a serving or former soldier truly knows about the needs of those in a combat zone. Allow non-combatants to provide goods and services, the argument goes, would lead to mistakes which would put soldiers' lives in jeopardy. Again, when you look at how soldiers in Iraq have sometimes had to put up with substandard or insufficient equipment, this is not an unreasonable argument.

I believe also that, in the case of a "necessary" or "just" war, those fighting should have access to adequate, reliable equipment to make them as safe as possible. However, I do not believe this would be compromised by having disabled people (or other non-combatants) producing, supplying or (where possible) installing the equipment. If anything, I suspect the problem or equipment and provisions shortages would be alleviated by adequate staffing of the departments responsible for production and supply of said.

I also have some sympathy for the view among many, that any outsourcing of the supply and maintenance of equipment to a non-military department may not necessarily be a good thing. It would depend on how it was implemented. Sadly, in civilian work (eg councils and many private companies), much work is outsourced to those who can supply the goods and services for the cheapest price, and not necessarily to the best quality. This is unacceptable in both civilian society and in combat work.

However, I also think there is a case for allowing specialist departments to supply certain equipment (eg military radio equipment and software), which would employ experts in their field who would not necessarily be good soldiers. Such departments should be run along the lines of providing the best, not the cheapest, service. Perhaps some current or former combatants would need to be on the team (or at least provide input as to what is needed in the combat zone), but experienced civilians could also be employed on the team. As such, I see no reason why, if created, they could not employ the services of people who may have disabilities.

Winds of war can cause drafts

What is also striking is that many who oppose the recruitment of people with disabilities into the Armed Forces are otherwise in favour of equal opportunities for disabled people. A few even have disabilities themselves. It does seem curious that this should be the case.

One possible answer is the fact that disability is one reason which is used across the world to avoid being drafted into the military. As well as being allowed to refuse employment as they choose, the military is also the only employer with the power to force people to work for them ("the draft") if needed.

True, this power has not been used in the UK since World War II. However, it has been used more recently in the USA (for example, in the Vietnam War in the 1970s). In the UK, members of the Territorial Army (part-time soldiers, often seen as volunteers) have been drafted to serve in Iraq, sometimes against their wishes.

Maybe it is feared that, if disabled people are allowed to sign up for work in the Armed Forces, nobody would be safe from the draft. I am against the draft, all combatants should fight from choice rather than coercion. As such, I am in favour of much stronger rights for conscientious objectors. But not for any form of "blanket ban" on employment.

Why is this an issue?

For many people with disabilities, not being able to work in the Armed Forces is undesirable, not just because it is seen as unfair ("the principle of the thing"). In some areas, ravaged by the decimation of industry during the Thatcher, Major and Blair years, the Armed Forces have become a major source of employment. In addition, wages and perks in the Armed Forces are often seen as superior to those in civilian work.

Will things ever change?

In the early 2000's, not long after Guthrie's infamous speech, it was mooted that the Army may change its recruitment policy slightly. An article in The Mirror back in 2002 suggested that people with a club foot, who wore spectacles or who has mild asthma may in future be allowed to join the Army.

Admittedly, articles in newspapers should not be treated as Gospel truth, as the media is a far from reliable source of unbiased news. However, it is also true that the Army currently has a recruitment problem - which is why regiments are being merged and (as already stated), Territorial Army members are being drafted into Iraq.

As the needs of the military change, I cannot rule out the possibility that the rules of employment on "health grounds" may be relaxed at some point in the future. Such a change will be opposed by some, and welcomed by others. The question is, how much will this change things in general?

Let us not forget, there are many reasons why people may not be suitable for employment in the Armed Forces - disability is just one of them. Likewise, the Armed Forces are not the only employers to discriminate against disability in employment. So, even if the Armed Forces became subject to the Disability Discrimination Act tomorrow, it would not signal the end of disability discrimination, let alone oppression.

If anything, any relaxation of the rules of employment by the military would probably be the result of an increase in the workforce - and the size in general - of the Armed Forces. This is not inconceivable, given the increased number of current and threatened imperialist military interventions of recent years.

Sadly, an increase in resources for the military often comes at the expense of a decrease in funding and resources for civilian services such as health, education and local services. It also implies an increase in the number and scale of wars, with all the death, destruction and impoverishment that entails on an international level.

Towards real justice

Allowing disabled people to be employed by the military would, in practice, benefit only a small number of people with relatively mild disabilities. To move towards true equality, we need to invest more in accessibility at a local level.

Money and resources should go towards making essential local services adequately funded and truly accessible - not wasted on imperialist wars. As long as there is imperialism and war, there can never be international social justice.

To achieve true equality for all people, with disabilities or otherwise, we need to smash the capitalist society which creates both discrimination and imperialist wars.

And replace it with socialism.


Online Poll

What are your views on the subject? You can vote in our poll, and/or leave a message on the subject in the Message Area.

Disabled people and the Armed Forces poll

Back to Red Disability political articles