May 30, 2008

Will "Ugly Laws" Make a Comeback???

(CBS) A Port St. Lucie, Fla., mother is outraged and considering legal action after her son's kindergarten teacher led his classmates to vote him out of class. 

Melissa Barton says Morningside Elementary teacher Wendy Portillo had her son's classmates say what they didn't like about 5-year-old Alex. She says the teacher then had the students vote, and voted Alex, who is being evaluated for Asperger's syndrome -- an autism spectrum disorder -- out of the class by a 14-2 margin.                                 
From the time of the Civil War until 1974, the United States had in place city ordinances, "ugly laws," that allowed the arrest and punishment of individuals considered physically unattractive. 

In fact, what was meant by "ugly" was disfigurement, disability, and disease. The main, stated purpose for such laws was to relieve the public from the sight of repugnant members of society. The real offenses for which these disfigured, disabled, and diseased individuals were arrested were (a) poverty and (b) begging. In a circular way, repellent features (missing limbs, sores, etc.) were often the reason for poverty and begging: such members of society could not gain employment and thus resorted to begging. 

Public protest and unenforceability were the reasons that the ordinances finally passed into oblivion. Today, however, similar patterns of employment denial and prejudgments about criminal status exist for the poor and disabled.

The desire to sanitize society, thus making socialization a pleasant, unchallenged act, is particularly hard on military veterans. After WWI, disfigured vets found returning to ordinary life difficult because once disfigured, they were never allowed to blend in again. After WWII, the same thing happened. Men and women whose features were newly augmented with prosthetics became resident sideshows in their communities. 

One wonders what the cost will be for the troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq---the prosthetics are much improved since WWI & II, but society has gotten used to never having to look at someone else's hurts.

And what about the thousands of new epileptics returning home???  Will their presence signal an improvement in care for all of us? Or, will they simply be urged to go home and hide from society... because if they do not, will they,  like the Florida  kindergartner with Asperger's syndrome, find that they are voted out of their community for being "annoying"? 


angryyoungwoman said...

I remember in first grade the kids would throw rocks at me and another girl who was disabled. The teachers didn't do anything about it, I guess they just figured children would act like children, but it left me angry for a long, long time.

I don't know that there's a way to make people be decent and human. We need to educate them--but there is far more ignorance out there than you or I or a whole army of us can teach. And a lot of people are willfully ignorant, so I just don't want to waste my time trying to teach them.

Susan Schweik said...

That's a horrible story, and no surprise. If you're interested in more information on these oppressive laws, you might want to check out my book just out on May 1 2009 from New York University Press, The Ugly Laws. Thank you for this powerful post on ugly laws past and present. Susan Schweik