In the 19th and 20th centuries, cities across the country banned people with disabilities from begging in public. The laws targeted people with "physical and mental deformities," "imperfect bodies reduced by amputation" and "imbeciles." Known as "ugly laws," their effect was to push people with disabilities out of public sight while further impoverishing them.
While those laws have since been repealed, recent efforts in Baltimore city and county hearken back to them.
A push to further criminalize panhandling in the city directly affects those with disabilities, because they constitute a substantial number of our city's beggars. They are more than twice as likely to live in poverty and at poverty levels much deeper than their non-disabled peers: nearly 28 percent compared with 12.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Recent action of the Baltimore County Council to ban development of affordable housing also attacks the social inclusion of people with disabilities. People with disabilities comprise 50 percent of the voucher holders in Baltimore County, thus prohibiting development of subsidized housing erases the possibility of their living among non-disabled neighbors.
The inability to find stable housing and to support oneself is not a "life choice" for people with disabilities who are soliciting on our streets. It is about survival. People with long-term medical conditions that prohibit their gainful employment are eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Many people cannot qualify for such benefits because they lack medical records and access to specialists, however. A 2010 study by the National Commission on Disabilities found that people with disabilities experience both health disparities and barriers in gaining access to appropriate health care. They frequently lack either health insurance or coverage for necessary services such as specialty care, long-term care and durable medical equipment.
In Maryland, approximately 100,000 individuals over the age of 18 receive SSI despite the barriers to access. SSI benefits, however, are not sufficient to pay the fair market rent on a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the state, let alone cover costs of daily living. SSI benefits translate to about 20 percent below the federal poverty line and are substantially below minimum wage protections. Maryland's Temporary Disability Assistance Program (TDAP), which persons with disabilities may use while waiting for approval of SSI, provides participants with under $200 per month. In short, these programs to assist persons with disabilities further institutionalize their poverty.
The inability of people with disabilities to support themselves is further hindered by inequitable education and employment policies and practices. Numerous studies, including audits by the State Department of Education, document that students with disabilities are disproportionately excluded from education opportunities. And the employment rate for people with disabilities hovers near 21 percent while the rate for people without disabilities is 69 percent. We have not achieved a social environment that comes close to providing equal opportunities for people with disabilities.
Although we prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, the truth is that we are not comfortable fully including them. Our legacy is forcing individuals with disabilities into institutions and excluding them from school because, as one court stated, their presence may be upsetting and distracting to other students. Our legacy includes past promotion of their sterilization because, in the words of a 1927 Supreme Court ruling, "three generations of imbeciles is enough." We have gone to great lengths to keep people with disabilities out of our social space.
In pursuing the criminalization of solicitation by impoverished persons with disabilities, and acting to exclude them from housing, we diminish our chances of tackling the moral, economic and human rights issues associated with poverty and disability.
We should confront our ugly past by reversing course. We can instead consider ways to build better connections with such individuals and accept that they are like us. We should consider too that not everyone who solicits on our streets can wear a red suit and ring a bell. In this season of giving, we should give to those who live with disabilities and in poverty the opportunity to live and to walk among us and ask for help.
Lauren Young is the director of litigation for the Maryland Disability Law Center. Her email is email@example.com.
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