Heart of Arts

Who Cares to Push a Wheelchair?

Claire P. Ayelotan, PhD


Conflict and warfare have long cast their dark hue across human history, taking an especially devastating toll upon vulnerable groups such as women, children, older people and people with disabilities. Women find themselves caught between society’s structures and war’s brutal realities – often overshadowed by political discourse or battle strategies – while at the same time providing us with poignant stories of resilience, sacrifice and an undying human spirit. We should ask: who bears the brunt of war amidst chaos? And, more profoundly, who cares?

Indiscriminate violence has long been a plague on humanity, leaving lasting psychological, social, and economic scars on communities and nations around the globe. At its root lies power control – where those with authority have unchecked control of those they oppress–with no meaningful external checks on this power. Oppressors often believe they have carte blanche to pursue inhuman goals against oppressed parties with little fear of consequences from such assaults. Dynamically, this phenomenon plays out when those in power perceive no limit to their authority as opposed to taking drastic actions against victims without regard for future repercussions or fear repercussions from these dynamics play out violently!

External forces often bolster this sense of invincibility for oppressors by tacitly condoning or endorsing their actions, encouraging oppressors to believe their violence will go unpunished, further fuelling violence. As external entities – whether nations, international organisations, or global coalitions – continue their support, perpetrators must be held responsible and accountable. No one should feel invincible against the law!

Historical examples of such conflicts include (i) South African Apartheid from 1948 to 1994, during which minority white governments exerted oppressive control of majority black populations; (ii) the Rwanda Genocide of 1994 due to ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis led to an estimated massacre where roughly 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by extremist Hutu militia groups; and (iii) Balkan ethnic conflicts following Yugoslavia’s disintegration.

History appears to be repeating itself, which can be disheartening. We witness wars across different nations while facing new forms of apartheid where impunity reigns supreme. Suffering has expanded into forced displacement, violations of people’s legitimate rights and merciless killing. Women, children, elderly persons and people with disabilities are most at risk of oppression. Women during wartime are especially susceptible to harm due to societal structures, physical constraints and conflicts that contribute to increased vulnerability. Beyond immediate risks posed by conflicts themselves, female soldiers face greater chances of sexual and gender-based violence. Caregiving families may shoulder additional responsibility while also facing displacement or livelihood loss; one thing remains clear – war must be understood from both gendered perspectives to understand its dynamics effectively. Men were responsible for starting this conflict; however, women bore most of its brunt. Catharine McKinnon, an influential American legal scholar and activist on gender equality, sexual harassment, and abuse, has asked this poignant question in her book Are Women Human? Other International Dialogues explore how women’s rights are being violated or sidelined within international legal dialogue, criticising its inadequacies in dealing with systemic issues such as sexual violence in wartime, trafficking, or any form of gender-based violence.

One must question where women’s rights stand during the war when women in oppressors’ camps are protected from shellings and suffering, while in oppressed camps, their lives barely escape violent assaults on an almost daily basis. This tension points to the immense injustice and complexity of the conflict. Wars only exacerbate existing inequalities between society members and power dynamics between states. Conflict can expose women who already live marginalised lives to multiple rights violations, including forced displacement, sexual violence, and livelihood loss, as well as trauma associated with witnessing or experiencing atrocities. When women are selectively protected from facing these horrors of war while others are disproportionately affected, it raises serious ethical and human rights considerations.

Can Babies Carry Guns? The alarming number of children who have been caught in the crossfire of armed conflicts raises questions as to whether our world has become increasingly unsafe for innocent minors affected by war and also raises a red flag of caution about its danger. Given all the instances where infants have been exposed to violence – both at birth and as they shelter in hospitals or their own homes – one cannot help but question whether these young lives can remain secure in their surroundings. Children living through war often remain among the most vulnerable members of society and suffer from unspeakable atrocities that often go ignored due to more pressing matters. At its core, witnessing the killing of parents by oppressors can have devastating repercussions for an individual’s mental well-being and development. Anger from such traumatising experiences may manifest later as the drive to confront and challenge those responsible. Therefore, one should never underestimate their power to retaliate and resist perpetrators of atrocities.

While it is likely that most vulnerable groups can escape dangerous situations and zones during conflict, those residing within category four might not fare well. For instance, who would care to look out for blinds before leaving an unsafe zone? As they say, who cares about pushing a wheelchair when bombs are about to fall from above? Certainly, people (and children) with disabilities (PWD) will become the most significant casualties after any conflict ends, which is almost inevitable. Many of these individuals experience complex challenges and an increase in vulnerability during times of war; their lives become collateral damage as their needs often go unmet. Without being met appropriately, they become susceptible to discrimination, abuse, neglect, and abandonment by authorities and local citizens alike.

Article 11 of the 2008 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) emphasises the necessity of safeguarding PWDs during armed conflicts; however, their practical implementation remains an enormous challenge. International organisations, governments, and humanitarian agencies should prioritise addressing the rights and needs of PWD during emergencies or conflict situations. Undoubtedly, these people are perceived as burdens that should not exist in society. Pre-war PWDs already had enough challenges due to others’ perceptions and the limitations imposed upon them; additional obstacles exacerbate the difficulty PWDs must deal with when operating within war zones. Indeed, their ordeals intensify because the focus is always on survival. When people are caught up in conflict situations, they prioritise their safety over others, often sacrificing their immediate family or others in pursuit of safety.

Thus, PWDs make up most war casualties due to limited mobility, dependence on specific facilities or caregivers for care, and society’s discriminatory views against them, making them particularly susceptible in times of warfare. Even when they reach IDP Camps on their own or with assistance, this does not ensure their safety because they may need to adjust to new settings that do not accommodate their disabilities. PWDs with chronic pathologies such as multiple sclerosis may require regular intensive care that must not be interrupted for their safety. IDP camps that lack specialist healthcare can have severe and devastating repercussions for individuals living with severe and complex medical issues. Lack of access to essential medications, treatments, and support services has led many of those within that demographic to be at increased risk during warfare, and their vulnerability is exponentially increasing without crucial access. Additionally, war’s inherent dangers – bombings, shootings, and forced relocations – combined with PWD’s unique challenges can result in an intense period of hardship.

Further complications: The effects of conflict tend to fall disproportionately in PWD communities. Even when they survive immediate dangers, destruction of infrastructure, healthcare facilities, and social support networks poses long-term threats to their well-being and survival. Humanitarian efforts must prioritise PWD safety and well-being during conflict, including ensuring that their casualty data accurately represents them to gain an understanding of its extent and develop appropriate interventions.

Question of Blame for PWD Plight in War Zones When conflict becomes the basis for conflict and oppression in war zones, who is to be held responsible? Ultimately, responsibility rests with those initiating and perpetuating such violence, but regardless of who started or perpetuated said violence, society as a whole needs to respond appropriately or not at all when people with disabilities (PWD) find themselves suffering under attack; ethical considerations associated with their plight become essential components. The three groups fall along this continuum.

  • Oppressors who instigate and sustain conflicts shoulder much of their responsibilities. Their actions create chaotic environments which disproportionately harm vulnerable populations, such as PWDs; should they disregard civilian well-being–particularly vulnerable civilians – they directly contribute to suffering and fatalities among civilians.
  • Bystanders/Nondisabilities: It has long been recognised that individuals tend to avoid helping when others are present; during wartime, this effect becomes particularly powerful as fear, self-preservation instincts, and the overwhelming nature of situations prevent individuals from intervening unless it directly threatens themselves or loved ones’ wellbeing. Although human nature emphasises protection above helping when possible, individuals still owe an ethical responsibility to help those most in need when possible.
  • Broader International Community: If global powers or organisations that know of atrocities but fail to take meaningful steps to intervene or provide support are aware but do nothing, they also bear some responsibility.

Deliberating upon one narrative can be dangerous. While both oppressors and victims can justify their violence as necessary for self-defence, understanding who is authentic or not becomes far less pressing when considering casualty counts on the ground–particularly that suffered by PWDs.

As much as we may want to pretend not to notice or consider others’ suffering during a war or crisis, history will hold us responsible. No one can avoid paying their dues; looking the other way is both morally wrong and an abdication of collective responsibility – history has proven otherwise; societies or individuals that ignore atrocities or remain passive against injustice often endure lasting guilt repercussions for doing so, as well as historical judgement against themselves or society at large.

George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” in his artwork, The Life of Reason, 1905, illustrates the necessity of acknowledging, confronting, and learning from historical injustices and tragedies. Society should examine past actions (or inactions) to prevent future transgressions while cultivating cultures of empathy, compassion, and responsibility.

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