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Disability is not worse than death

disabilitydeath200The words of an iconic Australian song miss the mark when it comes to the message sent about people living with disability, writes Moira Byrne.

25 April 2013

Around ANZAC day every year, Eric Bogle’s poignant song, And the Band played Waltzing Matilda receives regular radio airplay.  It’s a soldier’s tune, with a lovely, simple but haunting melody and heart-rending verses on some painful truths of combat, and the futility of warfare.  It depicts suffering, loss and grief from the perspective of an injured returned soldier.

This year as I listened to the lyrics, I was unsettled by some of the phrases within the song.  No doubt it was the songwriter’s intention to unsettle and provoke; it is a political tune.  But I was unsettled by what it says about disability.

The song begins with the protagonist describing how as a young and healthy man, he enjoyed travelling, but he hears his country’s call and goes to war.  The second stanza details the candid realities of Gallipoli: ‘our blood stained the sand and the water… we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter’.

A third verse continues with the grim events: ‘for ten weary weeks, I kept myself alive, though around me the corpses piled higher’, and ultimately reveals the soldier’s own injury: ‘when I woke up in my hospital bed, and saw what [a shell] had done, well I wished I was dead; never knew there was worse things than dyin’.’

Sadly, this song reflects and unwittingly affirms the view of many able-bodied people, who view disability as ‘a fate worse than death’.  More recently this is evident in recent road-safety commercials, where people with disabilities acquired as a result of car accidents are used as warnings against speeding.  Obviously it is important that drivers know consequences of their actions, but should it really be necessary to show people with disability as if living with impairment is the worst thing that could happen to someone?

Frequently, the initial despair of many of those who acquire disabilities is replaced by acceptance and growth, through being open to possibilities and recognising opportunities.  In popular culture, this is exemplified in the character of Lieutenant Dan Taylor in the 1994 film, Forrest Gump.

A commanding officer from a long line of war heroes, Lieutenant Dan loses parts of both legs in Vietnam, and blames Forrest for rescuing him when he ‘should have died out there with my men, but now, I’m nothing but a goddamn cripple; a legless freak!’  He accuses Forrest of cheating him of his destiny, which he believed was to ‘die in the field with honour’. Yet later, he tells Forrest, ‘I never thanked you for saving my life.’  He adapts to life with a new job, and then new legs, and new love.

This does not deny the very real grief of prospects that will never be fulfilled.  Anyone with personal experience of disability knows the realisation of new limitations.  The fourth stanza of And the Band played Waltzing Matilda illustrates this in sorrowful words on the soldier’s inability to roam the bush as he did, due to his injury.  It also describes how ‘the crippled, the wounded, the maimed’ were shipped ‘back home to Australia’, and how he ‘thanked Christ there was nobody waiting’ at Circular Quay for him ‘to grieve, to mourn, and to pity.’

Pity has lost its meanings as compassion, and now describes disappointment and regret on behalf of others.  Nobody wishes to be pitied these days, including people with disabilities.  Disability is not death.  Most people adjust to whatever difficulties come their way, be it injury, illness, addiction, financial woes, career stresses, employment disappointments, marriage breakdowns and even disability, at times with help from counselling.  Even the ache of the passing of loved ones can be assuaged by the passage of time, distraction, and the company of other loved ones.

To me, I pity the soldier not because of his disability, but because there was nobody waiting for him.  There was no-one for the soldier to grieve with, mourn with, and be loved by, with sympathy and compassion, in a time of deep loss.

The biting fifth verse of the song laments how ‘nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they turned all their faces away’ as he and his injured mates were carried from the ship.  This verse, more than any of others, cuts to the quick.  The marginalisation of the soldier, who fought for his country and experienced significant loss in the process, is tragic.

This same marginalisation is one many people with disabilities experience on a daily basis.  The dichotomy of stares and averted eyes is commonplace.  There appears to be no ‘happy medium’ such as the kind of non-committal glances most of us involuntarily provide to strangers.   Yet this verse at least prompts a reaction, inviting the community to respond differently.

The last song is a provocative epithet on the futility of war, in a paraphrase of the Waltzing Matilda lyrics.  Enjoy the song when you hear it.  It deserves an audience for many reasons.  But ignore the idea that acquiring or experiencing disability is the end of life.

Loads of people have shown otherwise.  Focus instead on the challenge to respond more generously and openly to soldiers, and anyone with disabilities.

Moira Byrne is a writer, policy specialist and a fellow of the Australian Prime Ministers Centre at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra.  She has a strong research interest in disability studies and Australian political music.

Lyrics to And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda (Eric Bogle)

Now when I was a young man, I carried me pack, and I lived the free life of a rover;
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback, well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said son, it's time you stopped rambling, there's work to be done.
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun, and they marched me away to the war.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda, as the ship pulled away from the quay;
And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears, we sailed off for Gallipoli.
And how well I remember that terrible day, how our blood stained the sand and the water;
And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay, we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was waiting, he'd primed himself well.  He shower'd us with bullets, and he rained us with shell.
And in five minutes flat, he'd blown us all to hell.  Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda, when we stopped to bury our slain.
We buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs, then we started all over again.
And those that were left, well we tried to survive, in that mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks, I kept myself alive, though around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head, and when I woke up in my hospital bed,
And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead. Never knew there was worse things than dyin'.

For I'll go no more waltzing Matilda, all around the green bush far and free
To hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs-no more waltzing Matilda for me.
So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia.
The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane, those proud wounded heroes of Suvla:
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay, I looked at the place where me legs used to be,
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me, to grieve, to mourn, and to pity.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda, as they carried us down the gangway.
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they turned all their faces away.
And so now every April, I sit on me porch, and I watch the parades pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march, reviving old dreams of past glories.
And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore. They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war.
And the young people ask, what are they marching for? And I ask myself the same question.

But the band plays Waltzing Matilda, and the old men still answer the call;
But as year follows year, more old men disappear. Someday no one will march there at all.
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda, who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by that billabong, who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

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