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Meat chart?/_Soul Full of Coal Dust_/Disability

The * mid-paragraph is important; please don’t read the first paragraph without also reading the one that follows.

Quite a few years ago, I came across a local magazine in Cape Breton, which is a region that used to have a lot of mines and other heavy industry (I’m from the province of Nova Scotia, but I’m not from Cape Breton, which is a region within Nova Scotia). This magazine had a first-person narrative written by a retired miner which I remember* for its vivid and lucid writing style as well as one of the historical details it included: apparently, when workers lost or damaged part of a limb, it was common practice for company-employed doctors to amputate less of the damaged limb than was medically advisable so that the company would be required to pay less out in insurance to the amputee. To this end, there was a medical infographic in the company doctors' offices jokingly referred to by miners as the “meat chart” which showed what segments of a miner’s legs, arms, and torso corresponded to different degrees of liability for the employer.

This may or may not be true. I put the star by remember* because it’s good not to depend on one’s memory in cases like this, or at least I know I shouldn’t depend on mine. I’m not even sure I have the right industry, and have half in mind that it might have been a large metal works I was reading about rather than a coal mine; everything needs to be verified, but I haven’t had university library access to look into it. However, my local public library had a copy of Soul Full of Coal Dust by Chris Hamby, which is about the recent history of the rights struggle of coal miners affected by black lung (coal workers' pneumoconiosis or CWP) in the Appalachians in West Virginia. It looked like a good read, and I wanted to see if there was any passing mention of this meat chart I may or may not remember.

The meat chart was not mentioned. But Soul Full of Coal Dust does echo one remembered detail: it features a doctor who abets a team of corporate lawyers and the company they work for by misdiagnosing black lung. The misdiagnosis is financially motivated because if black lung were to be diagnosed, the company would be liable to pay the disabled worker monthly benefits. The book is basically a narrative of how the mining community fights back against unscrupulous law and bad medicine.

It reminded me a lot of Animal’s People, a novel by Indra Sinha I wrote about some years ago. Even though Animal’s People is based loosely on the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal in 1984, it is a fiction, so please keep in mind that I’m comparing journalism to a work of imagination.

In both Animal's People and Soul Full of Coal Dust:

  • Disabled people are the crux of the struggle of a threatened community against unfettered corporate self-interest.

  • The community affiliated with the disabled person is a disadvantaged community, and the injury to the disabled person is the outcome of the injustice perpetrated against a whole cohort.

  • Bad doctors cooperate with lawyers to make people with serious disabilities out to be malingerers.

  • Activists have to struggle to have very obvious disabilities formally diagnosed.

  • Money is a motivating factor for those who want to prove disability, but there’s also a strong and sometimes overriding desire to punish the perpetrators to protect other people.

But was there ever a meat chart? If yes, was it a very localised thing, or widely distributed? If you know about this, please drop me a line.

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