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Soldiers & Symbols: Images of Disabled Veterans in U.S. Political Cartoons

Beth Haller, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, USA
Co-author(s): Arthur Shapiro, Ed.D.


Disability imagery has long filled American newspapers in the form of political cartoons, and this paper looks at one category of imagery in these cartoons - soldiers disabled by war. This category combines both realistic images of actual war-related disabilities, as well as metaphorical images used by cartoonists to criticize wars and other societal problems. These images occur in political cartoons every time the U.S. participates in a war, and recent unpopular wars are particularly rich in imagery - the war on terror, the Iraq war, and the Walter Reed Military Hospital scandal.

Political cartoons, in general, are an excellent source of disability imagery because many focus on exaggeration and satire to convey messages in broad themes (Harrison, 1981). For centuries, metaphors about persons with disabilities have been embedded in language. Common linguistic metaphors such as "to be blind to" or "crippled by fear" not only express ideas, they shape them, and thus, they have shaped attitudes toward disability. Cartoonists translate linguistic metaphors into visual and symbolic ones (Fischer, 1990). This analysis of cartoons featuring disabled veterans investigates both realistic images and metaphorical imagery that has long been used to give disability negative connotations.

The lens of Disability Studies provides the theoretical grounding for recognizing and analyzing these ubiquitous subtle images that stereotype persons with disabilities. Mitchell and Snyder (2001, p. 199) explained that historically "the analysis of the negative images helped to support the idea that disability was socially produced. Identifying common characterizations that reinforced audiences' sense of alienation and distance from disability began an important process of scholarly attempts to rehabilitate public beliefs." By understanding disability as a product of culture, we can better understand societal messages imbedded in images of disability. Through critical examination of political cartoon images of disabled veterans, we learn more about the representational meanings of disability in U.S. culture.

Methodologically, this paper uses content analysis of political cartoons (Berger, 1998) to look at imagery of disabled veterans from the Civil War to present so as to better understand how these cartoons (N=149) have contributed to cultural representations of people with disabilities. The content analysis will code for categories such as the publication, the cartoonist, the frames, the metaphors, imagery, for example. This paper is a segment of a larger project looking at disability imagery in political cartoons from the Lincoln era to present day (N=633).

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