Braille Monitor                                                    November 2009

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The Ugly Laws: A Review

by Ed Morman

The front cover of the book the Ugly Laws shows a blind beggar with a sign saying “Blind” around her neck.From the Associate Editor: Ed Morman is director of the Jacobus tenBroek Library of the NFB Jernigan Institute. He joined the staff in April 2008, having already enjoyed a career in the history of medicine. The tenBroek Library collects as much nonmedical material on blindness as it can in order to become the nation's premier research facility in the field. Last April Susan Schweik, a professor of English and disability studies at the University of California at Berkeley, participated in the second annual Jacobus tenBroek Law Symposium, where she presented a copy of her recent book, The Ugly Laws, to the NFB. Ed Morman agreed to review it. Here is what he says:

Susan M. Schweik. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. New York and London: NYU Press, 2009.

Disability activists use the term “ugly laws” to describe certain century-old ordinances enacted in a few American cities. None of these laws includes the word “ugly” in its title or anywhere in its text. Moreover, by the time the term “ugly law” was invented, many of the ugly laws had been repealed, and those still on the books were seldom enforced.

In her introductory chapters Susan Schweik explains that the phrase was invented in the 1970s and that its use was encouraged by the same activists who were then beginning to talk about a disability rights movement. To her credit Schweik acknowledges the debt the new disability activists owe Jacobus tenBroek, making it clear that the blind professor’s legal scholarship was crucial to the inception of the disability rights movement. More than that, though, tenBroek had worked hard to create the organizational embodiment of his revolutionary ideas, the National Federation of the Blind, which represented a model to other communities of disabled people.

Most of the ugly laws included the following wording: “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object … shall not … expose himself or herself to public view.” Schweik explains that the inventors of the term ‘ugly law’ understood ‘ugly’ to mean unsightly or disgusting.” Then they realized that the laws themselves were ugly—that the ugly laws perfectly expressed the ugly idea that tenBroek had so brilliantly opposed in his legal writings. The ugly laws express precisely what tenBroek hated when he set out to demonstrate that the disabled have the "right to live in the world.”

In her research Schweik uncovered the fact that, when the ugly laws were enforced, they were directed almost entirely against people we would now refer to as street people, regardless of whether they had a disability that others might regard as unsightly or disgusting. The laws were also enforced against beggars who falsely claimed to be disabled. In those days, as still happens today, some people used a real or phony handicap to gain sympathy from others.

Thanks to the Federation’s early leadership, the organized blind in the United States no longer have any desire for sympathy. In its place are the demands for independence, security, and opportunity. We seek security for the blind by building independence and by fighting for opportunity. However, where opportunity is lacking (as the high unemployment rate of the blind exemplifies) and where independence is hard to come by (when the blind are kept from receiving proper training), we still fight for security. The Federation’s ongoing struggles for more rational laws and regulations on disability benefits exemplify this truth.

In the days before the Social Security Act guaranteed at least a bare minimum of economic security for the disabled, private charity was often motivated by pleas for sympathy. We therefore should not judge the disabled of past generations by the standards the NFB and other disability rights activists have set for the twenty-first century. We must ask, though, whether things are really so different today. The nineteenth century French author Anatole France once sardonically wrote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.” We know that disability can lead to poverty, and it is often the disabled who find themselves sleeping under bridges, even in 2009--or perhaps especially in 2009, given the current state of the economy.

A story related by author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich illustrates this. In an essay, “Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?” that appeared in the New York Times last summer, Ehrenreich presents the example of a sixty-two-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran who had been spending nights in a homeless shelter. One evening police raided the place looking for men with outstanding warrants. Some months earlier this man had been given a ticket for sleeping on the street, and he had subsequently failed to appear in court to face charges. Because of the raid he found himself spending that night in jail instead of in the shelter. And because of his time in jail he lost his place in the shelter and was back on the streets again.

To be sure, the writing in this book occasionally falls into the jargon that is too common among academics, but at bottom it is based on principles articulated by Jacobus tenBroek more than fifty years ago. In fact Schweik quotes tenBroek’s seminal law review article “The Right to Live in the World” at length three times in this book.

Schweik evidently sees the ugly laws as putting into relief the relationship between disability and poverty. She explicitly links the disabled with the poor by describing both groups as the objects of prejudice, devalued by society, and therefore regarded as better not seen in public places.

Schweik believes that all groups that must fight for their rights have much in common. As longtime NFB supporter attorney Dan Goldstein put it at the 2008 Dallas convention, “There are critical differences between different minorities, but a bad decision hurts all minorities. Bad decisions for any group hurt others who are also subject to discrimination. What we have in common is that the majority regards us all as outside the norm.”

Federationists showed that they well understood Susan Schweik’s point when they spontaneously began singing the civil rights hymn, “We Shall Overcome,” at the end of Dan’s speech.

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