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Memorial Day and People with Disabilities

Color Guard
Creative Commons License photo credit: Envios

Ever wonder who puts all those flags on the graves of veterans?


Like communities all across America, on Memorial Day our city holds a celebration to remember our basic values. A parade starts at the high school and ends at the cemetery where generations of citizens and soldiers end their life’s journey.

As the sun was beating down to the Sousa marches, our whole family, including my uncle John, was standing by the largest fountain, watching the parade of Little League teams, high school marching bands, Boy Scouts and the politicians in their red, white and blue ties.

The cemetery was beautifully prepared. The lawns were like carpet, the grass on the edge of the sidewalk was so carefully clipped, it stood at attention; the peonies, irises and annuals colored the grounds with reds, pinks, purples and whites. Everyone was feeling damn patriotic.

Everyone, except Uncle John. He turned to me and said, “I wasn’t always handicapped.”

“What?” I know I raised my eyebrows and wondered where this was coming from. I mean, Uncle John was never a happy person, but since he had a stroke, he was a weary soul. We hoped this celebration would lift his spirits. After all, who doesn’t like a parade?

Uncle John explained, “You know, I was an electrician. I was important, I contributed, I worked in a great hotel for 30 years. Now I just sit here and watch life go by. I’m handicapped and useless.”

Not exactly cheerful parade conversation but I couldn’t resist. “Uncle John, having a handicap isn’t the end of the world. Can you enjoy the parade? Look at those little kids jumping up and down on their decorated wagons.”

“You just don’t understand,” he said. “I’m not like him,” eye-pointing to Aaron.

Some Battles Can’t be Won

Since Aaron, my son with the label of autism, was sitting in the lawn chair next to Uncle John, I felt I needed to say something.

But I couldn’t find any words.

In silence, we were side-by-side, almost touching–yet thousands of miles away from each other–as we watched the veterans from the VFW pass by in antique cars.

The soldiers varied in shapes and sizes, men and women, veterans from the current Iraq, Afghanistan war to seniors of the war that would end all wars—but didn’t.

The sun reflected off the windshields, and I reflected that our society treasures the antique cars which are worth more now than when new. The old model cars were spit shined and decorated with banners. The old soldiers also wore banners, but many of their faces and bodies were worn. Did our society value them?

Some soldiers were younger than my sons, Aaron and Tommy. But, we all know their youth was shattered in the deserts and mountains of strange lands.

Some of the veterans in the parade carried the labels of “handicapped and disability.”

As the crowd cheered and waved, I had to wonder if these brave men and women would be truly accepted into our society. Would others, like Uncle John, say they were “useless”?

Would they only see the handicapping condition, would they consider these wounded warriors better than Aaron, because they were once whole? Because they were “damaged” fighting for our country?

World War II Story

As the speeches droned on, I remembered a couple stories by Bob Perske. One where he talked about people with disabilities and the war (click here).

And another: Bob said after WWII, a family in London moved into a new neighborhood. Instead of saying their son had cerebral palsy and had the label of intellectual disability from birth, they told their neighbors, “He was gassed in the trenches of Germany.” And in a post-war era of grief and loss, that benign lie made all the difference. Instead of avoiding or shunning the family, the new neighbors welcomed their family into the community. Their attitudes were completely different.

Modern Day Attitudes

A soldier who used a wheelchair got some sort of award and the crowd clapped. I wondered if our community embraced his family, or did we just give him a token wall plaque on Memorial Day and then segregate, discriminate and ignore him the rest of the year. Would he get the support he needed to live, work and recreate in the community?

The same questions I often ask for Aaron. Is one human more valuable than another? Is that what our country stands for? What the soldiers sacrificed for?

Disabled and Yet-to-be Disabled

Didn’t everyone understand there are only two groups of people in this world–the disabled, and the yet-to-be-disabled? If we live long enough, each of us will have a disability.

Being Useful, Proving Worth.

People with disabilities are not useless and just watching the parade of life go by.

And then being a good advocate—or crazy person who doesn’t know boundaries or when to quit– I asked Uncle John if he noticed how beautiful the cemetery grounds looked.

I told him Aaron worked at this cemetery. He and the crew of people who did the landscaping had disabilities, but if they had the support they needed, they weren’t handicapped and “useless.” In fact, they were the ones who made the grounds look so beautiful.

I pointed to the rows of tombstones which each held a single flag.

I told him that for the last 2 days, Aaron’s job was to place a flag in the holders by each tombstone. And tomorrow, Aaron would go back and remove the flags and save them for 4th of July, when he would again put them out.

Was Aaron useless?

What I remember| Memorial Day:

It’s been ten years since that Memorial Day parade. Uncle John died a couple months later–old, bitter and handicapped. He never hugged Aaron or saw what Aaron could do, only what he couldn’t do.

And, like the day of the parade when he missed the joy, pride and purpose of the Memorial Day celebration, Uncle John also missed the joy Aaron brought to anyone who opened their heart.

I think Aaron and I will wave a couple flags tomorrow to celebrate America.

And, I’m hoping that while Aaron was placing those flags in the cemetery, other people were seeing him as a competent, contributing member of our community.

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best,



Come on, I know you want to share some memory of your own Memorial Day Parade, family reunion, attitudes about disabilities and “Handicapped.” Lots of good ideas, let us know what you are thinking.

Related Stories:
Aimee Mullins and Survival of the Fittest

What makes you special? A Soldier story

Do the words disability and handicapped mean the same thing?

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13 Responses to “Memorial Day and People with Disabilities”

  • Kelsey says:

    This made me kind of sad.. I think Uncle John is like a few kids my age that I know. They never can either see their own potential, or the potential that others seem to have. I don’t know what I would have done if I were you in that situation.. he is your family and the other is your son. It’s very difficult.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Good points Kelsey. The funny thing about family is that you forgive them and love them anyway. But, you’re right–he never did love Aaron for who he was. He only saw what was wrong with him–and that was his loss.

  • Leigh says:

    Hi Mary,

    Have you read Joanna Bourke’s “Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain, and the Great War”? It talks a great length about this topic of being born disabled and “made” disabled through war war 1 – and the naming conventions during that time — The “Guild of the Brave Poor Things” was renamed the “Guild of the Handicapped” by the soldiers who objected to the patronizing tone.

    Also, the Guinea Pig Club (men who had been disfigured/ part of McIndoe’s burn unit) is a great real life “how to” for the disabled, their caregivers and the community.

  • I spent the morning last week helping a friend of mine who has a son with Downs Syndrome. We were helping his mom who is chronically sick. He was such a great little helper. As I gave him tasks to do, I thought of what you have taught me over the past months. I specifically gave him tasks following the concept of inclusion. And you know what? It was great! It was so rewarding for both of us and made the idea of cleaning her kitchen, folding her laundry and clearing off her dining table a pleasure! Thank you, Mary. You made a difference to this gal and her little helper. And his mom. 🙂
    Alison Golden recently posted..How To Have An Exciting Life!

    • Alison, you are the best. What a wonderful thought to cherish when I get discouraged.

      It sounds like your friend is living through a hard time. How wonderful for you to help.

      I’ll bet the little boy was thrilled to be able to be part of the “solution” and assist you. Plus, I’ll bet his mother loved that you saw him as having skills and talents. It must have been a day for her to treasure.
      Mary E. Ulrich recently posted..Memorial Day and People with Disabilities

    • Gary Jordon says:

      All I have to say is way to go Allison. that is really awesome. Now if only more folks tried what you did there might be a whole lot more inclusion on Mother Earth.

  • Char Brandl says:

    Mary – Beautifully written, as always. Your story combines at least two of my passions – advocacy for peace and respect for those with diabilities. A great story for this holiday weekend. Thank you!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Coming from you, this is a special compliment indeed. Thanks Char. Hope all is well with you and your family.

  • Gary Jordon says:

    Hi Mary I’ll chime in and I’ll try to keep the mouthiness to a dull roar. First of all I almost pity your uncle John. What a sad soul he sounds like. But like you I have heard the they are useless nonsense(Opps that would include me). How very Republican that notion is. The benign lie trick that says it all how sad that it takes that kind of trickery to be treated like a real person. I says a lot about what we value and what we don’t/

    I think that your post on the Animal school said it best.

    Ok I’m not exactly fond of this particular holiday like Veteran’s Day it seems to me to celebrate nothing but the murder of others and call it heroism. I still stand by my Memorial Day post I wrote last year.

    Lastly I like all of your questions in this post. I sometimes find myself wondering the same things.

    Thanks for writing a very good post and I hope you and Aaron along wit Tommy and the Mr. have a great weekend.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Thanks for all your thoughts Gary. In America we are supposed to value our diversity and freedoms–all kinds. That’s what we go to war for, right?

  • I am hopeful that as generations get more familiar with disabilities, people will become less and less heartbroken over the label. It is so sad that your uncle died unhappy. Like your uncle, my father never truly accepted my daughter with Downs before he died, and I feel like he missed out on so much. Thanks for sharing this story.
    Valerie Strohl recently posted..A World Created by You!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Thanks for your comment Valerie,I too am hopeful that as our children go to school, work and are in the community with other people, there will be less stigma and people will see what they can do, instead of what they cannot.

      They miss a lot of love, it’s too bad.

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